Minnesota sues Juul for deceptive and unlawful trade practices, false advertising

An illustration shows a man exhaling smoke from an electronic cigarette in Washington, DC on October 2, 2018. - In just three years, the electronic cigarette manufacturer Juul has swallowed the American market with its vaporettes in the shape of a US (EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Image / Getty Images)

Minnesota is suing Juul Labs, the nation’s biggest producer of electronic cigarette products, accusing the company of hooking Minnesota kids on nicotine through deceptive marketing.

Attorney General Keith Ellison and Gov. Tim Walz announced the lawsuit Wednesday, shortly after it was filed in Hennepin County District Court. State officials say Juul’s practices have undone a decade’s worth of gains in cutting youth tobacco use in Minnesota.

Minnesota is seeking an unspecified amount of money from Juul and also wants to force the San Francisco-based company to change how it markets its products. Juul makes products with higher, more potent levels of nicotine, but represents to consumers that its products are a safe alternative to cigarettes, Ellison said.

“They’re going to try to point blame in every single direction they can think of, but the responsibility is on their shoulders. And we’re going to prove it,” he said.

Ellison and Walz compared the lawsuit to the state’s 1998 settlement with tobacco companies over cigarette use. Minnesota got more than $6 billion from that settlement and, when a reporter asked if the state could seek such a dollar figure this time, Ellison said, “I would not refute that.”

In an emailed statement, a Juul spokesman didn't directly respond to the lawsuit but said it has stopped accepting orders for mint-flavored products, suspended its U.S. advertising, and is committing to develop new technology -- which it did not describe -- to reduce youth use.

“While we have not yet reviewed the complaint, we remain focused on resetting the vapor category in the U.S. and earning the trust of society," said the spokesman, Ted Kwong. "Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers and we do not intend to attract underage users."   

Minnesota joins at least three other states -- New York, California and North Carolina -- in suing Juul. The states are collaborating on the vaping issue, Ellison said.

The case is almost certain to take years to litigate. For years, states have been suing opioid manufacturers for similarly deceptive trade practices.

Walz said he expected Juul to fight the case.

"You can hire your attorneys. You will have your day in court. But we will bring the righteous justice of the state of Minnesota down on you," the first-term Democratic governor said.

Ellison’s office has hired two Minneapolis-based law firms, Robins Kaplan and Zimmerman Reed, to lead its case.

The state’s contract with both law firms says they won’t be paid unless Minnesota’s case is successful. Ultimately, they could make $33.7 million if the state receives $500 million from Juul, under the terms of a fee structure agreement.

The Minnesota Department of Health’ recent statewide survey of students found that one in four 11th graders now use e-cigarettes. The number of eighth graders vaping has nearly doubled between 2016 and 2019, the survey results indicated.

Wednesday’s announcement came after the governor went on a listening tour this fall, talking to teenagers about nicotine addiction. Two of the students he met at Hopkins High School, Claire Hering and Will Gitler, said they found it hard to quit e-cigarette use.

“Last night was the first night, I officially threw everything away,” Hering, a junior, told reporters at Wednesday’s news conference. “I don’t have any of it in my room anymore. It made me think that I’m strong.”

Walz and a bipartisan group of lawmakers have endorsed legislative action to raise the tobacco-buying age from 18 to 21.

Walz also supports a ban on sales of flavored nicotine products. He has said he does not have the authority to enact such a change by executive action, as the governor of Michigan did this year.