JUUL stopped accepting orders for its mint pods in the U.S. and is undergoing additional quality control measures in response to recent nationwide backlash.
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine is suing e-cigarette producer JUUL, accusing it of marketing its products to kids, understating how much nicotine they contain and lying about its efforts to fight youth smoking in the city.
The lawsuit mirrors two filed last week by attorneys general in New York and California and comes as JUUL and other producers of e-cigarettes and vaping products are facing increased legal, regulatory and political pressure from cities and states across the country over fears of the dangers of vaping — especially to minors.
"JUUL was marketing its product without specifically noting that the product contains nicotine, which is a very addictive chemical. Moreover, JUUL borrowed its marketing strategies from the Big Tobacco playbook, which was really focused on drawing in teenagers. In addition, while JUUL has over time started to take some actions to verify age of the buyers online, the reality is that their methods were sporadic initially and ineffective," said Racine in an interview.
"Altogether, we think that they have been misleading, that they have targeted teenage users, and that there is an ongoing harm that's being caused that needs to be redressed," he added.
Racine's office started investigating JUUL over the summer, in response to data showing that e-cigarette use was spiking — and that smoking rates among kids that had long been falling were turning in the other direction. One D.C. high school principal cited in the lawsuit estimates that half of their juniors and seniors were using e-cigarettes.
The lawsuit accuses the California-based company of violating the city's consumer protection law and asks that it end its "unfair and deceptive conduct," and that it pay civil fines. And the lawsuit could be just the beginning of something bigger — Racine said subpoenas have been issued to eight other e-cigarette companies.
In a statement, a JUUL spokesman said that the company is already taking steps to address many concerns that have been raised nationwide about the safety of vaping and the marketing of e-cigarettes and their flavored pods, which many regulators say target minors.
"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 the spokesman.
"As part of that process, we recently stopped accepting orders for our Mint JUULpods in the U.S., suspended all broadcast, print and digital product advertising in the U.S. and are investing in scientific research to ensure the quality of our FDA Premarket Tobacco Product Application (PMTA) application and expanding our commitment to develop new technology to reduce youth use. Our customer base is the world's one billion adult smokers, and we do not intend to attract underage users," he added.
Beyond legal troubles, e-cigarette producers are facing other challenges in D.C. There are two bills before the D.C. Council that would impact their business: one would fully prohibit the sale of flavored e-cigarettes (lawmakers in Maryland are considering a similar ban), and another would prohibit vaping without a doctor's prescription.
In Montgomery County, legislators are considering a bill that would prohibit any vape shops within a half-mile of any middle or high school, and the county has joined in a class-action lawsuit against JUUL. Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot has also created a task force to look into e-cigarette use and possible legislative solutions.
In D.C., Maryland and Virginia, anyone looking to buy cigarettes or e-cigarettes has to be 21 years old.