As people switch from smoking to vaping, as a “healthier” alternative, one truth eludes them. Vaping can be just as addictive as smoking cigarettes.
Over the last few months, a new category of nicotine addicts has filed three lawsuits against Juul, the maker of the most popular electronic cigarettes in the US. The plaintiffs alleged that Juul´s marketing of their products as safe has been deceptive. For starters, people who “Juul” (as young people refer to vaping) are often getting more potent nicotine doses than cigarette smokers.
One of the problems with juuling is that the company is deliberately targeting college-age kids. By partnering with known teenage influencers on Instagram, Juul has managed to make their product look hip and appealing to very young Americans. In fact, many young nicotine addicts, who get their fix by juuling, are picking up the habit at school.
As early as the 1970s, anti-smoking activists knew people smoked because they were addicted to nicotine, but it was not the nicotine, but the tar that was killing them. While it is still true that nicotine itself does not cause cancer, and that it is other ingredients in traditional cigarettes that do, the popularity of the Juul forces us to ask the question: do we really want a whole generation of nicotine addicts, even if they are not getting lung cancer from their habit?
As I explain abundantly in my upcoming book, “Corporate Serial Killers,” a nicotine addiction acquired earlier in life is much harder to fight. As much as cigarette marketers in the 1950s targeted youth because they knew an early addiction would create a lifelong customer, Juul is now targeting teenagers and young adults, because they know the rewiring of the brain that takes place when a young brain is stimulated by nicotine.
Cigarette makers pretended they didn´t know smoking could kill, and we all know how well that ended. With all the information we now have about nicotine addiction, nobody can seriously believe the executives and marketers at Juul do not know what they are doing when they funnel massive sums into the pockets of Instagram stars, in order to get millions of views for pictures of young people looking, hip and glamorous with a Juul in their hands.
Although you have to be twenty-one to shop at Juul’s official website, the black market is full of readily available Juul products, and the same is true for the likes of eBay and Alibaba.
According to a sixteen-year-old who was recently interviewed for a New Yorker article, “Dealers [at school] will announce on Snapchat that they’ve bought a hundred [Juul], and they’ll write the price, the date, and the meeting place for kids to show up with cash.”
According to Jonathan Winickoff, once chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Juul is already a massive public-health disaster–and without dramatic action, it’s going to get much, much, much worse… It’s absolutely unconscionable. The earlier these companies introduce the product to the developing brain, the better the chance they have a lifelong user.”
Now, the families of three different plaintiffs, who are suffering from a crippling nicotine addiction (compliments of Juul) are looking to hold the company accountable.
In the cases, filed in California and New York, the damage in question isn’t a physical injury, but rather, the addiction itself. Of course, jurors are likely to say that, although it’s not easy, the addicts could potentially quit. Juries may argue that the plaintiffs already knew nicotine was addictive when they started juuling.
Yet, if there is evidence that Juul was marketing to children, the lawsuits have a better chance of moving forward. Still, these are very tough lawsuits for potentially limited recoveries. This is, in fact, a good example of how punitive damage caps allow companies to get away with murder because even if they intentionally market a potentially dangerous drug to kids, the punishment is limited to a small multiple of the compensatory damages, which may not be that high in the first place.
According to the parents of the teenagers on whose behalf Juul is being sued, their children changed dramatically because of their addiction to juuling often becoming moody and irritable, and being unable to concentrate on the most basic tasks unless they can get enough nicotine into their system.
Not even by removing the door from his bedroom were the parents of one New York kid, identified in the lawsuit as D.P., able to make him stop juuling. The family explains D.P. picked up the habit in high school where there was juuling on the school bus, in bathrooms, and even inside the classroom. D.P. “is unable to avoid juuling even though it subjects him to disciplinary measures at home and at school,” the complaint says.
Valuated at $15 billion, Juul has already raised $650 million in venture capital. As we await the outcome of the lawsuits, the FDA has upped its scrutiny of Juul’s marketing campaigns to establish whether the company is targeting children and, therefore, at fault.
John Uustal is a Ft. Lauderdale trial lawyer with a national law practice focused on serious injuries resulting from dangerous and poorly designed products. His upcoming book Corporate Serial Killers focuses on companies that choose profits over safety.