Lake County and a trio of Chicago law firms are taking e-cigarette manufacturer Juul Labs to court, alleging in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the company hooked teens on nicotine by glamorizing the product on social media and elsewhere.
Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim on Tuesday announced what he described as a first-of-its-kind action at a news conference outside Daniel Wright Junior High School in Lincolnshire.
Surrounded by students, county officials and lawyers from three firms that have joined the effort, Nerheim said teen vaping has become a "massive health epidemic across the nation" and targeted Juul, which owns more than 75% of the e-cigarette market.
"Like dope dealers on a street corner, Juul intentionally created addicted teen customers to continuously come back looking for another fix," Nerheim said, likening the tactics to tobacco companies in the '60s and '70s.
San Francisco-based Juul Labs exists to help adult smokers switch from combustible cigarettes, spokesman Ted Kwong said in a statement Tuesday.
"We have never marketed to youth and do not want non-nicotine users, especially youth, to ever try our product," he said. The company has exited Instagram and Facebook and taken "aggressive industry leading actions" to combat youth usage, he added.
Nerheim and partners in the suit -- Romanucci and Blandin, LLC; Hart McLaughlin and Eldridge LLC; and Edelson, PC -- say Juul's "predatory" marketing campaign is aimed to recruit new users at a young age by getting them hooked on the nicotine in e-cigarettes.
The company launched a massive online advertising campaign that specifically targeted teens on social media platforms and pushed them to take pictures of themselves using the product, then asked them to post those pictures on social media using the Juul hashtag, the lawsuit claims.
Kwong said the company works "constantly" to remove inappropriate social media content generated by others and is developing technologies to restrict teen access. Juul has stopped the sale of non-tobacco and non-menthol based flavored Juul pads to retail stores and conducted more than 2,000 "secret shopper" visits per month, he added.
But Nerheim isn't buying it, saying "hundreds of thousands of adolescents" were conned and became hooked on nicotine. Attorney Tony Romanucci said the company has done an "end around" by creating a new company to market products.
"Juul simply appears to be addressing a problem that they created and only tried to fix the damage after being called out for what they have done," Nerheim said. "Those efforts are far too little, far too late."
Kids vape in class, school bathrooms, parks and in their bedroom, but have no idea they are ingesting "huge amounts of a highly addictive chemical and carcinogens," Nerheim said.
Vrushali Thakkar, a senior at Stevenson High School and president of Catalyst, a substance abuse prevention club, said students use it in the classroom after teachers leave and aren't caught because there is no smell.
"We're becoming nicotine addicts," she said. The array of flavors "have been engineered to attract kids and romanticize the industry," she added.
The suit alleges Juul's practices have led to widespread adolescent addiction to its products, which can be undone only through expensive anti-addiction and cessation treatment and education programs.
"It will take years of education and money to right the wrongs and cover the damages caused by Juul's marketing campaigns. To that end, the company should be held accountable for the massive expected cost to undo the damage they created," Nerheim said.
He said the suit has been in the works a year and 17 lawyers at the private firms are on the case.
"I'm proud we're first. We know this will be a long, hard-fought lawsuit and we're prepared for that," he added.