New York state is suing e-cigarette giant Juul, accusing the company of targeting teens, downplaying the presence of nicotine and hooking a generation on e-cigarettes, Attorney General Letitia James announced Tuesday.
James claims Juul "took a page from Big Tobacco's playbook," targeting kids in advertising and allowing its products to be sold to minors. She alleges Juul misled consumers about its products' nicotine content and misrepresented its products as safer than cigarettes.
Juul held more than a dozen launch parties across New York City and the Hamptons, "a wealthy beach community on Long Island—home to celebrities, influencers, and trendsetting youth," according to the state's complaint. A company representative as part of Juul's now discontinued youth prevention program went into at least one New York City high school, telling students Juul's products were "totally safe," the lawsuit alleges.
"There is no doubt that Juul, the largest e-cigarette company, has caused this addiction," James said at a news conference, referring to survey data showing a surge in teen vaping.
The state also alleges that as recently as last year, Juul continued to do business with "many" of the "dozens" of retailers in New York that failed Juul's secret shopper checks.
California earlier this week filed a lawsuit against Juul, claiming the company marketed to and illegally sold its e-cigarettes to minors. The state alleges sales records show Juul's age-verification system allowed "thousands" of deliveries to "phony names and addresses" in California, including 17 shipments to an individual named "Beer Can."
North Carolina filed its own lawsuit against Juul in May, accusing the company of targeting young people and downplaying the danger and potency of its products. Aside from the states, a number of counties, school districts and individuals are pursuing legal action against Juul, the market leading e-cigarette company that is widely blamed for fueling a teen vaping epidemic.
Juul spokesman Austin Finan in a statement said the company does "not intend to attract underage users."
"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," Finan said.
The lawsuit seeks to legally require Juul to stop targeting minors, as well as pay fines for a number of alleged violations. Juul is the sole defendant, though James suggested her office could pursue other companies, including Altria, the tobacco company that owns 35% of Juul.
"I can't specify our legal strategy, but going forward, all individuals who are responsible for the destruction that has been caused in the state of New York, you can be assured this office will pursue those individuals and not be limited to any one particular company," James said.
Altria spokesman Steve Callahan in a statement said "virtually all" of the allegations in the lawsuits "occurred before Altria had any economic interest in Juul." Altria invested $12.8 billion for a 35% stake in Juul last December.
"Our minority, non-voting stake in Juul provides no basis for liability against Altria," he said.
Shares of Altria fell nearly 3% Tuesday, closing at $46.93 a share.