Natrona School District sues e-cigarette company

CASPER — The Natrona County School District officially filed a lawsuit against e-cigarette giant Juul this week, alleging the company had targeted young people and had misrepresented the true potency of the devices. 

“As a result of JUUL’s youth-targeted marketing and misrepresentations about its products, JUUL has succeeded in addicting a new generation of youth to nicotine,” alleges the federal lawsuit, filed by a Jackson-based law firm. “Nicotine use among America’s youth is rising sharply. With JUUL as the dominant market-leader, e-cigarette use increased 78% among high-school students and 48% among middle-school students from 2017 to 2018.” 

The school district’s board gave Jackson attorney Jason Ochs the go-ahead to file the suit last month. It broadly alleges that the company specifically marketed its products to teens, even designing its flash drive-like device to set it apart from the stigma-saddled traditional cigarettes. It charges Juul with downplaying and misrepresenting how much nicotine was present in the “pods.” 

The lawsuit will join sprawling litigation against Juul that’s consolidating in California, similar to how thousands of lawsuits against opioid companies were lumped together in Ohio. Ochs, who also represented Wyoming municipalities in those opioid suits, told the Star-Tribune previously that the school district’s suit will be part of the California litigation but will return to a Wyoming courtroom should it ever go to trial. 

A company spokesperson told the Star-Tribune last month that Juul did “not intend to attract underage users” and that the company was seeking “to earn the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and transition adult smokers from (traditional) cigarettes.” 

But the lawsuit alleges that Juul took a page out of traditional tobacco companies’ marketing playbook. The district accuses Juul of depicting “flirtatiously posted young people,” mimicking previous tobacco adverts, in order to establish Juul as “’cool,’ ‘carefree,’ ‘stylish,’ ‘attractive,’ (and) ‘sexy,’” among other desirable attributes. 

The company’s marketing included flashy spreads in magazines and billboards which, the suit alleges, minimized or completely disregarded the presence of tobacco in the product. Advertisements included in the suit show young people posing, smiling and holding the devices. Juul also paid social media “influencers” — typically young people on Instagram or other platforms whose lifestyles have granted them audiences and lucrative advertising potential — to further advance its product. 

“JUUL’s social media campaign, including the use of paid social media influencers and viral hashtag advertising, was highly-coordinated and focused to persuade those who use social media — youth — that JUULing was the latest cool trend and healthy,” the suit alleges.

Everything from the device’s design to the flavors infused in the pods to the light that flicks on when the device is used were all part of the company’s effort to corner the youth market, the suit alleges. 

The lawsuit cites studies that, it states, show a “teen vaping ... epidemic.” 

“According to a December 2018 survey of adolescent drug use, 20.9% of 12th graders, 16.1% of 10th graders, and 6.1% ... of eighth graders had vaped nicotine in the previous 30 days,” the suit alleges, citing an NPR story. “According to the CDC, in 2018 3.05 million high-schoolers and 570,000 middle-schoolers used e-cigarettes. Those figures are up from 220,000 and 60,000 in 2011.” 

“E-cigarette use increased 78% among high-school students and 48% among middle-school students from 2017 to 2018,” it continues. “The 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey found there are over 5 million youth currently using e-cigarettes, including 27.5% of high schoolers and 10.5% of middle schoolers, both up from 2018.” 

Data from within the Natrona County School District shows widespread use of e-cigarettes among Casper students. Data presented to the board last year showed that 60% of high schoolers had vaped at least once. Forty-four percent had vaped in the previous 30 days. Fifteen percent vaped daily. 

On top of that, 62% said they saw little to no risk associated with vaping. Studies have shown that e-cigarette use can lead to the use of traditional cigarettes and that vaping leads to adverse health effects. 

In all, the lawsuit alleges multiple violations of law. It alleges that Juul broke the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which is commonly used to prosecute organized crime, and that the company acted negligently; is a “public nuisance;” engaged in “willful misconduct;” that it failed to inform users of the “dangers of vaping and nicotine use,” despite Juul being allegedly aware of those dangers; and that the company undertook these allegedly illegal acts “to gain market share and revenue through increased usage of Juul’s products by students.”