Arizona Sues E-Cigarette Giants JUUL Labs, Eonsmoke Amid 'Public Health Crisis'

JUUL products confiscated from Arizona schools on display at the press conference on Tuesday.
JUUL products confiscated from Arizona schools on display at the press conference on Tuesday. Ali Swenson
Arizona is suing vaping companies JUUL and Eonsmoke, accusing the e-cigarette giants of using deceptive and youth-oriented marketing campaigns to exploit the state's youth and hook them on nicotine.

State Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced the lawsuits in a press conference on Tuesday. He claimed JUUL Labs Inc. knowingly used deceptive Big Tobacco tactics to target Arizona's teenagers, convincing them to try flavored products that would get them addicted.

click to enlarge
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced the lawsuit against two vaping companies in a press conference on Tuesday.
Ali Swenson
When the San Francisco-based JUUL suspended sales of flavored pods last year, Brnovich said, New Jersey-based Eonsmoke LLC "jumped full-throat into that industry" to take its place, promoting flavors like sour apple, cotton candy, and piña colada to appeal to teens.

"In this day and age, words like 'crisis' and 'epidemic' are very often thrown around unnecessarily, but this truly is an epidemic," Brnovich said. "This has truly become a public health crisis."

"If you don't hold companies accountable, you're not going to deter other companies from doing it in the future," he said.

The lawsuits filed in Maricopa County Superior Court on Tuesday make Arizona at least the sixth state to sue JUUL, after California, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, and North Carolina attorneys general filed suits last year. Attorneys general in at least two states, Massachusetts and North Carolina, have sued Eonsmoke.

School districts nationwide, including at least four in Arizona, and several individuals, have filed lawsuits against one or both of the companies, too.

Brnovich's lengthy complaints, at 36 and 23 pages, describe in detail the decades-long history of how tobacco industry marketing tactics have targeted youth. They provide visual examples of how the vaping companies' actions could be seen as following the same playbook.

The state is demanding the companies permanently stop using deceptive, youth-oriented marketing tactics and give up profits they received through such actions. It's also asking for civil penalties of up to $10,000 per known violation of the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act.

Alongside the Eonsmoke lawsuit, the state is requesting a preliminary injunction against Eonsmoke "to shut down sales of illegal vaping products immediately," Brnovich said in a release.

The FDA determined that Eonsmoke lacked its required marketing authorization for sales in the U.S. in 2019, Brnovich said, but the state's undercover investigations found the products were available in nine out of Arizona's 15 counties and online.

The state's decision to sue follows an uptick in tobacco retailers illegally selling to young consumers in state audits, Brnovich said. In the 2018 fiscal year, the state saw its lowest "failure rate" among tobacco retailers it audited — just 9.8 percent of stores selling tobacco sold products to underage users. But in fiscal year 2019, that number jumped to over 13 percent, and it's only risen in the months since.

Since the state can only cite stores for petty criminal offenses, which those stores can deal with by paying a fine, these lawsuits are a way to take further action against the vape manufacturers whose products are drawing young people into the stores, Brnovich said.

"I can only deal with the tools that are in my toolbox," he said. "We're trying to do everything we can."

President Trump's administration announced a policy on January 2 to decrease teen vaping, including an effort to eliminate most flavored e-cigarettes on the market nationwide. But Brnovich said he doesn't want to leave the problem in the federal government's hands.

click to enlarge
A poster at the attorney general's press conference shows JUUL advertisements with bright colors and young models, which the state's lawsuit argues targeted underage users.
Ali Swenson
"I'm not going to rely on Washington, D.C., to solve Arizona problems," he said.

JUUL spokesman Austin Finan responded to the complaint in a statement to Phoenix New Times on Tuesday.

“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," he said.

He added that JUUL has stopped accepting orders for mint-flavored pods, suspended advertising, and refrained from lobbying the federal government as it made its decision on vape product flavors.

An email sent to Eonsmoke wasn't immediately answered on Tuesday.

Some 5 million middle and high school students nationwide report being regular vape users, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey. 
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ali Swenson was an editorial fellow for Phoenix New Times starting in 2019.