by ALEXANDRA RETTER
A lawsuit was recently brought against e-cigarette manufacturer JUUL Labs by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison in a time of rising youth vaping rates and increased instances of vaping-related lung injuries and deaths.
The lawsuit comes amid growing local concern about the use of vaping devices by area teens and a push to ban the sale of tobacco products to people under 21 in Winona County.
According to the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, one in four Minnesota 11th graders reported using an e-cigarette in the past 30 days. “That one in four represents a 54-percent increase from the 2016 survey, in which 17 percent of 11th graders reported vaping. The jump among eighth graders is even more significant, with nearly twice as many students reporting using an e-cigarette in the past 30 days,” the survey states.
In Winona County, more than one in six girls in 11th grade reported using an e-cigarette device in the previous month, according to the survey. Four percent of eighth-grade girls reported that they had used an e-cigarette device either every day or at least 20 days in the last month, and five percent of ninth-grade boys reported that they had used an e-cigarette device for all 30 days of the previous month.
“It’s pretty common,” one Winona Senior High School (WSHS) teen told the Post in late October about vaping. Four WSHS students talked with the Post about vaping, and they all said they do not think parents are aware their kids do it.
“Our lawsuit asks the court to find that JUUL is responsible for creating a public nuisance and for violating several state consumer protection laws, including consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices, unlawful trade practices and false advertising,” Ellison said at a press conference last Wednesday as he announced the lawsuit with Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan and others, including students.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis, asks for the court to have JUUL stop marketing to young people; fund a corrective public education campaign in Minnesota regarding the dangers of youth vaping; fund vaping cessation programs in the state, including youth-appropriate programs; disclose all its research about vaping and health; and take steps to prevent the sale of its products to children. The lawsuit also asks for the court to award monetary relief, in addition to civil penalties and reimbursement, to Minnesota for costs related to controlling youth e-cigarette use.
“ASAP Winona is thrilled to hear the action taken by our governor and our attorney general,” said Elle Mark, the program coordinator for the Winona County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP). “JUUL, like many ‘big tobacco’ companies, targets our youth in hopes of creating the next generation of smokers. The surgeon general and others have reported that nearly 90 percent of lifelong tobacco users started before the age of 18 years old, and tobacco companies are well aware of this. These companies need to be held accountable for their actions, including the targeting of youth, and this lawsuit is the first step in taking them down, along with the initiatives groups like ASAP do locally.”
Ellison accused JUUL of creating products that have higher, more addictive doses of nicotine than conventional cigarettes and other e-cigarettes and then saying its products are a safe alternative to cigarettes. He alleged that JUUL vaping devices and vaping liquids were developed to appeal to youth and marketed to them to secure a customer base with strategies similar to those of the “big tobacco marketing playbook.” He also alleged that JUUL did not work to correctly verify its customers’ ages as required by Minnesota law.
“It’s our duty to not let the gains that we made in protecting our youth from tobacco use over the last 20 years be stolen by a company that is profiting off of deceiving them, and it’s my duty to not stand by while JUUL tries to addict a whole new generation of our kids,” Ellison stated.
Denver Brown, a PA-C and tobacco treatment specialist in family medicine at Winona Health who completed training at the Mayo Clinic, explained that he would advise patients to avoid using e-cigarette products. “It is concerning to me that we are seeing hospitalizations and deaths from young people with vaping-related lung injury even with short-term use of e-cigarettes,” Brown shared. “These products also have not been around long enough to have any clear indication of how they relate to diseases that take a long time to develop, like cancer.”
JUUL said in a statement that it is working with stakeholders to block people who are underage from using its products and stated that its customer base is adult smokers. It said it ended its acceptance of orders for mint-flavored pods, or vaping liquids, in the U.S. recently and stopped advertising in the country.
Claire Hering, a junior at Hopkins High School in Minnetonka who vaped in the past and found it difficult to quit, stated at the press conference that she feels young people do not vape without reason, but do so because of stressors in their lives. She said she believes focus should be centered on supporting young people’s mental health.
“I’m concerned not only as a mother of a child — a six year old with asthma — but as someone who has advocated for children for my entire career,” Flanagan stated. “We recognize the urgency of taking action to combat the increasing vaping rates in schools and among our students for the health and well being of our children and the entire future of our state.”
Flanagan noted that during listening sessions with students across the state, students expressed their concerns about youth vaping. “With the rate of eighth graders using e-cigarettes doubling from 2016 to today, they need us to fight back, because most eighth graders don’t have lobbyists,” Flanagan said.
Walz said other action on vaping, such as legislation, could be considered in the future, “but we can’t wait for that,” he stated. “They are not going to admit they’re wrong … And they will use their merchant-of-doubt playbook to tell us we’re bad parents, to tell us we have bad kids, to tell us that we should’ve known, we told you or how would we have known this was going to happen?” Walz said. “ … But my message to JUUL if they’re listening today is 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 JUUL … our first responsibility is the protection of our children, and that’s exactly what we intend to do.”