Hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against e-cigarette maker Juul in recent months, claiming the company's youth-oriented advertising and candy-like flavors created a generation of addicts in middle and high school classrooms.
Now, an Arizona teen who blames the San Francisco company for his nicotine addiction has filed his own lawsuit demanding damages.
In the lawsuit, filed on November 25 in Arizona federal court, 19-year-old Omar Mejia alleges that Juul Labs Inc. used misleading ads that resulted in his nicotine addiction, health concerns, emotional distress, and a "diminished enjoyment of life."
Mejia, who filed the suit with the law firms Burg Simpson and Douglas & London, names San Francisco-based Pax Labs Inc. as a co-defendant. Pax Labs Inc. once held the patent for Juul's technology. Mejia is seeking civil penalties and a jury trial.
The 36-page complaint explains that Mejia started using Juul products around 2016, when he was 16 years old. At that point, Juul had existed for about a year, and Mejia says he had seen its advertisements, some of which didn't include nicotine warnings, and many of which featured attractive young people in an apparent attempt to recruit young users.
The defendants' 2015 "Vaporized" advertising campaign, the lawsuit claims, focused on colorful devices and the range of flavors while misleading teens "about the product's purpose — to deliver nicotine to the blood stream at the same rate as combustible cigarettes."
Attorneys for Mejia didn't respond to requests for comment for this story, and attempts to reach Mejia were unsuccessful.
Mejia's complaint refers to a January 2019 Stanford University study that analyzed three years' worth of Juul advertisements, email promotions, social media content, and event footage, and concluded Juul's marketing was at one point "patently youth oriented." The study also found that while Juul advertisements warned against underage use and disclosed the presence of nicotine in products by 2018, "these notifications were not always included and have evolved over time."
Juul didn't respond to a request for comment.
In a July congressional hearing, Juul co-founder James Monsees defended the company by admitting it had made "missteps" but arguing it had moved on quickly. Monsees said the company "never wanted any non-nicotine users, and certainly not anyone underage" to use its products.
In September, the company paused all advertising of its e-cigarettes and switched out its CEO amid pressure from federal investigations by Congress and the FDA. By November, it had stopped selling its flavored pods as well.
But Juul's efforts didn't stop attorneys general from three states — North Carolina, California, and New York — from suing the company for its marketing tactics that they say contributed to a teen vaping epidemic. School districts nationwide, including at least four in Arizona, have filed lawsuits, too.
Pax Labs Inc. denied all wrongdoing in a statement to Phoenix New Times, claiming the cannabis-focused company "has never designed, sold, or advertised nicotine products" and is "wrongly named as a defendant" in this and other Juul cases.
Dr. Robert Jackler, the Stanford tobacco researcher who authored the January study, told New Times he thinks Mejia and others in his situation have a case against Juul because its advertisements contributed to the vaping trend that has swept across classrooms nationwide.
"When I was a kid, boys had long hair," he said. "So I wanted the longest hair. And I wore bell bottoms and I wanted the widest bell bottoms. And frankly, if I was a teenager, I’d probably want to have my Juul and have everybody see me using it. It’s become that kind of a fad amongst the teens in America. Now, is Juul responsible for that fad? I would say, emphatically, yes."
Jackler said Juul's early advertisements on social media didn't reflect the company's stated mission to help smokers switch away from cigarettes.
"In their first six to eight months, they heavily advertised in ways that would appeal to teenagers," he said. "If they were trying to reach adult audiences, you would use advertising channels where adults frequent."
Instead, Juul targeted customers on social media and in the pages of Vice magazine.
Jackler said his current research is unveiling even more examples of how Juul has targeted nonsmokers. A pamphlet that came in the package with Juul products as recently as 2018, for example, told users that "like any new experience, Juul may take getting used to."
"Don't give up," the pamphlet read. "You'll find your perfect puff."
Though Juul has used a lot of the traditional tobacco industry's marketing tactics, according to Jackler, there's a key difference in the lawsuits against cigarette and vape companies. Most lawsuits against cigarette companies included claims of serious injury, like emphysema, heart disease, or lung cancer. So far, the injury most Juul lawsuits are claiming is simple nicotine addiction.
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"The industry will defend itself by saying nicotine itself isn't what kills people," Jackler said. "They'll defend it by saying nicotine is a benign addiction like caffeine, but in fact, it's not true at all. Juul primes the teen brain for subsequent addiction."
Studies long have shown nicotine addiction is difficult to break, and most users of harder drugs like cocaine used cigarettes first. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) describes physical ailments that can accompany withdrawal from nicotine, including anxiety, headaches, weight gain, trouble sleeping, and depression.
Jackler, who has met the founders of Juul, said the company started out like many popular Silicon Valley startups do — well-meaning and wildly successful.
"They say we'll never do evil, we're here to do good things, but when the money starts rolling in, they compromise their values," Jackler said. "Juul seriously lost its way."