Sixteen-year-old Claire Hering thought vaping was safe until it was too late and she was hooked.
“It’s better than other drugs. That’s what I always heard,” the Hopkins High School junior said.
Attorney General Keith Ellison says Juul Labs is largely responsible for Hering and other teens’ misconception that e-cigarettes are safe and not addictive. Now Minnesota is suing the e-cigarette giant for deceptively marketing to children to get them hooked on nicotine.
“In Minnesota, we have a special duty to take on this fight,” Ellison said Wednesday at a news conference with Gov. Tim Walz and other state leaders announcing the lawsuit. He noted that Minnesota was one of the first states to win legal settlements from tobacco companies.
“Now Juul has stepped in to deceive consumers just like big tobacco did an has taken it to a whole new level,” Ellison said.
Jan Malcolm, the state’s health commissioner, said e-cigarettes have erased a decade of progress to lower teen smoking rates. A recent statewide survey of students found a quarter of high school students vaped in the last month and the rates at middle schools had doubled in just a few years.
The state’s lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of financial damages to fund quitting programs for young people like Hering. Money would also be used to improve awareness of the dangers of e-cigarettes.
Hering didn’t mince words when asked for advice for others who want to quit vaping. “It’s going to suck so bad,” Hering said. “But it’s worth it.”
LUNG INJURIES RAISE CONCERNS
Vaping has also led to more than 2,000 serious lung injuries across Minnesota and the rest of the country. More than 40 people, including three Minnesotans, have died from vaping related injuries.
Most of the vaping related injuries are believed to have been caused by devices that were tampered with to use homemade vaping liquids or to dispense THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The Minnesota Department of Health recently found that vitamin E acetate was present in numerous samples related to vaping injuries.
Earlier this year the U.S. House oversight committee found evidence Juul marketed to children. The company vowed to change its sales practices and moved to discontinue the sale of some flavors that are considered attractive to children.
HOW JUUL RESPONDED
In a statement, a Juul Labs spokesman said the company had not reviewed the Minnesota lawsuit. Juul recently suspended all US broadcast, print and digital adverting in the U.S. and is working in other ways to combat underage use.
Juul is focused on “resetting the vapor category in the U.S. and earning the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and convert adult smokers from combustible cigarettes,” the statement said
ANTI-SMOKING PROGRESS ERASED
In Minnesota, the youth smoking had fallen below 5 percent before Juul was introduced. Nicotine use among teens is now primarily through vaping and a much smaller percentage smoke cigarettes or chew tobacco.
Molly Moilanen, of ClearWay Minnesota and Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, applauded the state’s lawsuit.
“Minnesota’s lawsuit against Juul rightly holds that company accountable for its predatory behavior, but unfortunately there is no silver bullet to solving this health crisis,” Moilanen said. “We owe it to our kids to take an aggressive, multi-layered approach to reverse the nicotine epidemic and stand up to Big Tobacco.”
State and local officials are pushing to raise the age for purchasing tobacco to 21 across Minnesota. There is also support for restricting flavored tobacco or banning it altogether.
How to address what many consider a vaping epidemic among young people is expected to be one of the major points of debate when the state Legislature reconvenes in February.
“It’s not OK and today we stand up and say no more,” said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. “We are protecting our kids.”
Christopher Magan/Twin Cities Pioneer Press