Vaping trial: Juul, Altria sued by Minnesota AG over youth usage epidemic

Claiming the companies played large roles in propelling the vaping epidemic among the nation’s youth today, the trial of vape manufacturer Juul and tobacco marketer Altria, brought by the Minnesota Attorney General, is set to begin.

One of 13 states that have sued the company since 2019, Minnesota will be the first case against Juul to go to trial.

"When I announced this lawsuit more than three years ago, I said that my job was to protect Minnesotans from deceptive sales and to protect their health and safety, especially our youth. Just as this duty led Attorney General Skip Humphrey to take on Big Tobacco three decades ago, it compelled me to take on the next generation of misleading and youth-oriented sales tactics," Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a statement. 

Previously on March 16, Judge Laurie J. Miller denied motions on behalf of both Juul and Altria to exclude the opinions of several state doctors and experts, while also denying a motion from each for a summary judgment on behalf of the court – a motion that would have avoided a full trial.

The complaint also cites multinational tobacco company Phillip Morris as a defendant.

A trial is expected to last three weeks and will be held in Hennepin County.

Prior to the start of the trial, Juul released a statement that in part reads: "Juul Labs has reached settlements with 39 other states and territories, resolving issues from the past while providing hundreds of millions of dollars to further combat underage use and develop cessation programs in those states. We have and continue to seek a similar settlement with the state of Minnesota… At trial we will present a vigorous defense and show that the state’s claims do not stand up as matters of facts and law."

‘A generation of addicts’

As the popularity of vaping and e-cigarettes continues to rise, Juul and Altria have continued to market to underage consumers to profit despite known health risks, the complaint alleges.

According to a 2017 survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), at least one in five Minnesota high school students use e-cigarettes, which are now the most commonly used tobacco products among teens.

Meanwhile, from 2017 to 2018, Juul’s revenues grew 800 percent, the lawsuit alleges, valuing the company at $38 billion in 2019.

"Sadly, it is apparent that the rapid uptake of e-cigarettes such as Juul has quickly reversed Minnesota’s and the nation’s progress on curbing youth tobacco use. It is clear that Juul and its partners have turned a generation of youth into addicts," the complaint alleges.

According to MDH, "nicotine inhalation during childhood poses serious, permanent damage because the brain isn’t developed until you’re 25."

The lawsuit alleges that Juul, in partnership with Altria, "intentionally designed [products] to appear sleek and modern and to look like a USB memory drive that is easily concealed and used, even in plain sight," and included flavors that were designed to appeal to youth, while simultaneously engaging in youth-oriented marketing that, "deceptively lured and addicted young people."

In 2017, an MDH survey found that nearly 90 percent of Minnesota teens had seen at least one advertisement for vaping in the last 30 days, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit also alleges that Juul failed to adequately verify its customers’ ages, as required by Minnesota law, "deliberately turning a blind eye to Minnesota children’s purchase and use of its products."