San Joaquin County Dist. Atty. Tori Verber Salazar said Thursday that she is opening an investigation into e-cigarette company Juul Labs to look into what she said was “knowingly false and misleading” advertising that hooked young people on nicotine. The investigation could lead to a suit from the county, which is east of San Francisco.
A recent outbreak of a mysterious lung disease linked to vaping has served as a catalyst across the nation for increased regulation of and investigation into the e-cigarette industry, which public health officials say is threatening hard-fought gains in reducing smoking rates.
From 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette usage among high schoolers jumped 78%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Juul and other companies offer nicotine pods that have fruit flavors like mango or strawberry and entice young people to try nicotine, experts say.
This month, Michigan became the first state in the nation to ban flavored e-cigarettes. The Trump administration said this month that it is also considering outlawing the products. Los Angeles County recently approved a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products.
Salazar pointed to a Stanford University analysis of Juul marketing that found that the company hosted events targeted at youths where people could get Juul pods for free or for $1. These events were held across the country, but most were in California, according to the study.
Juul’s colorful ads featured actors in their 20s, the study found. Though Juul executives say their products were intended to help middle-aged smokers switch to e-cigarettes, the products were largely marketed to those people’s children, Salazar said in an interview Thursday.
“You can’t hold yourself up as an organization that is there to help, when in reality you’re here to do — and you have done — tremendous harm,” she said. “And that’s by enticing a new generation of high school smokers.”
In addition to legal action against Juul, Salazar is considering proposing an ordinance that would ban vaping in the county altogether. San Francisco became the first city in the nation to outlaw the sale of e-cigarettes this summer, and Long Beach officials will also consider drafting a temporary vaping ban next week.
The news comes during a moment of transition for Juul. Kevin Burns, the chief executive of the e-cigarette giant, stepped down this week. His replacement, K.C. Crosthwaite, said the company would suspend all advertising in the United States and would refrain from lobbying the Trump administration on its proposed ban of flavored e-cigarette products.
In a statement, Crosthwaite acknowledged the company must work with policymakers and regulators because its “future is at risk due to unacceptable levels of youth usage and eroding public confidence in our industry.”
Juul is also being investigated by the attorneys general of Illinois and the District of Columbia.
A 19-year-old from Illinois filed a suit against Juul last month after he became addicted to nicotine after trying e-cigarettes. He accused Juul of illegally marketing nicotine-delivery devices to minors and deceiving consumers about the risks of vaping.