After suffering a massive hemorrhagic stroke at age 20, a Connecticut man is suing JUUL Labs, the maker of America’s most popular e-cigarette. He alleges that his consumption of the company’s products, JUUL pods, led to his horrific brain injury, which has resulted in multiple surgeries and left the young man unable to live independently.
According to the lawsuit, JUUL never warned consumers like the plaintiff of the health risks associated with their products. JUUL was aware that nicotine exposure posed a threat to young teens — the U.S. Surgeon General had already made it clear that nicotine affects adolescent brain development in dangerous ways for people who are younger than 26.
Yet there’s no warning that e-cigarette use may lead to permanent brain changes or mood disorders on JUUL’s packaging. Before they pushed their product on the market, JUUL never studied a range of adverse side effects that are now coming into view as study after study finds new dangers associated with JUUL pods and other e-cigarette products.
Instead of researching the health implications of their product, the lawsuit argues that the company launched a successful campaign to hook youth smokers with tricks right out of Big Tobacco’s “Joe Camel” playbook. JUUL ensured that millions of teens would be exposed to ads for flavored tobacco products at a price-point they could afford.
JUUL Distributed Every Parent’s Nightmare Directly to Children
The plaintiff’s story begins like that of millions of other middle and high schoolers who have taken to vaping after JUUL exploded on to the market in 2015. Advertisements for the sleek and seemingly safe product appeared on his phone. They showed that JUUL was cool. Young social media influencers and models with sex appeal marketed directly to him.
If he wanted to purchase his own JUUL, he could log on to their website. According to the lawsuit, until recently, if someone failed to age-verify on JUUL’s purchase page, they were still included on the company’s mailing list and sent discounts on JUUL starter kits. Even if he could not order online, he was given everything he needed to get hooked.
At small brick-and-mortar convenience stores and gas stations — favorite haunts of underage users seeking tobacco products — JUUL displayed their wares in clear glass at the front of the counter. Instead of being out of sight with all of the other tobacco products, the lit JUUL cases were designed to get the attention of even the shortest potential customer.
JUUL could have partnered with pharmacies. They could have included health warnings. Instead, they courted the youth market with every tool in their arsenal. JUUL’s design is discrete, its vapor is harder for parents to recognize, and like millions of other kids, the Connecticut teenager began taking puffs of the addictive drug with zero oversight.
Their e-cigarette products deliver unprecedented levels of nicotine, the highly addictive stimulant in tobacco products. Dependence on nicotine can develop in a few days, and the drug is very difficult to stop using.
JUUL made acquiring a secret nicotine addiction easier than it has ever been.
Soon he was smoking two pods a day, each of which contains at least as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. Many young vapers are unaware that e-cigarettes contain nicotine, let alone the other dangers. Nothing on JUUL’s packaging would indicate otherwise.
One night, he came down with a bad headache. He stumbled into his parents’ bedroom, collapsed, and at the hospital, they told the family he had a massive hemorrhagic stroke. After multiple brain surgeries and more than 100 days in the hospital, he returned to a life that would never again be normal.
His permanent injuries include:
- Left-side paralysis
- 50% loss of vision from both eyes
- Speech and cognitive impairments
- Scaring and disfigurement
- Mood disorder
- Nicotine addiction
- Permanent brain changes
At the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference this year, researchers presented preliminary evidence that, compared to non-users, e-cigarette users had a 71 percent higher risk of stroke. What happened to this young man was no fluke.
JUUL and its allies have done a lot to sow distrust in the research findings of the public health community. Like the fossil fuel industry did for years with regards to climate change, the e-cigarette industry has created a public perception that the public health risks are “up for debate,” rather than debating the issue in a transparent way.
How many more teenagers will have to have strokes and seizures tied to e-cigarette use before JUUL owns up to the disaster they have engineered?
JUUL Flouted Tobacco Regulations in Order to Target Children
JUUL entered the market at a time when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations on e-cigarettes were still being developed. JUUL interpreted the ambiguity as a way out of complying with the advertising and labeling restrictions that prevent tobacco companies from marketing to minors and failing to disclose health risks.
JUUL did not appear accidentally on a towering 12-panel display above Times Square. The company was not just being nice by giving away free starter packs to attendees at live events.
Traditional tobacco products are prohibiting from engaging in these practices, but JUUL acted like the rules did not apply. Nowhere in its invitations to live events did JUUL say its devices were intended for smokers or that they were associated with vaping health risks and potential addiction. JUUL’s strategy was always to hook users, regardless of age, without thought for health implications.
Such distribution and marketing decisions undercut JUUL’s attempts to retrofit their product with the purpose of helping people quit. Such a scheme makes it even harder to swallow the recent apology of JUUL CEO Kevin Burns, who told CNBC:
“First of all, I'd tell them I'm sorry their child is using the product. . . It's not intended for them. I hope there was nothing we did that made it appealing to them.”
JUUL never told young users this product wasn’t for them. It never told adolescents that they could alter their brain.
In a recent ruling, a U.S. federal judge imposed a 10-month deadline for e-cigarette manufacturers to apply for FDA approval. Prior to the ruling, the FDA had given manufacturers until 2021 to submit documentation that showed their devices are safe and effective.
JUUL’s window for unregulated distribution is shutting, but American families will be reckoning with the consequences for decades to come.