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Pennsylvania sues Juul, demands ban on maker’s vaping products

Pennsylvania has joined a growing list of states suing leading e-cigarette maker Juul Labs, whose sleek vape pens and cartridges in fruit, dessert, and candy flavors have been blamed for contributing to a sharp rise in e-cigarette use among teenagers and adolescents.

The lawsuit, filed Monday by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, alleges that Juul misled consumers about the health risks and addictive power of its nicotine vaping pods and improperly marketed the products to youths.

The lawsuit seeks a statewide ban on all Juul products, including tobacco-flavored ones. If the court does not grant a full ban, the state wants to ban all of Juul’s flavored, menthol, and high-nicotine vaping products except those that are tobacco-flavored.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration this month forbade the sale of flavored vaping pods nationwide. Over the last two years, Juul has phased out sales of flavored pods, except for those with menthol and tobacco flavors.

“Juul knowingly targeted young people with tactics similar to the tobacco companies’ playbook,” Shapiro said in a statement. “There is no proof these e-cigarettes are safe and until there is, we need to get Juul products off shelves and out of the hands of young people.”

Juul has said that adults are its target audience and that it does not aim to attract underage customers.

“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 by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and convert adult smokers from combustible cigarettes,” said Austin Finan, a spokesman for Juul, in a statement.

Last year, the company ceased all major digital, print and television advertising, and said it would not lobby Congress over a federal ban on flavored e-cigarettes.

Pennsylvania’s lawsuit and similar suits in New York, Massachusetts, California and other states follow a surge of vaping-related lung illnesses and deaths that cast a spotlight on the sharp rise in vaping among teenagers. Bucks and Montgomery Counties have also sued.

Vaping-related lung illnesses spiked over the summer and have been declining in recent months. As of Jan. 21, a total of 2,711 people have been hospitalized, and 60 have died, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC found a strong link between the illnesses and vitamin E acetate, an additive in some vaping products containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.

That ingredient has not been found in nicotine vaping pods, such as those sold by Juul. But the outbreak of illnesses drew attention to vaping’s rising popularity among young adults. More than a third of the cases involved patients between ages 18 and 25.

While combustible cigarette smoking rates have declined, nicotine vaping rates more than doubled among high schoolers between 2017 and 2019, with about a third of high school seniors reporting that they have vaped within the last 30 days, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s 2019 Monitoring the Future Survey. The annual report surveys 42,500 students in grades 8, 10, and 12 at 400 public and private schools across the country.

Marijuana vaping has also risen dramatically among teenagers.

In response to teen vaping trends, many states and cities have pursued legislation to restrict e-cigarette sales.

Philadelphia is rolling out a ban on the sale of flavored vaping pods and those with high levels of nicotine at stores that teens and children are allowed to enter, such as 7-Eleven and Wawa, as well as smaller retailers.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in January signed into law a state-wide ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes.

The FDA ban took effect Feb. 6. It affects one-time use cartridges in fruit, candy and mint flavors, which are available at convenience stores and have been popular among teens. The ban does not apply to menthol and tobacco flavors or tank-based vaping systems sold at specialty vape shops.

Sarah Gantz/Philadelphia Inquirer