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California attorney general sues Juul, alleging vape ads reached youths

California Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, Sues Juul

They have accused Juul of illegally advertising to youth

juulBy Catherine Ho - San Francisco Chronicle

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Monday announced his office has sued Juul, accusing the San Francisco e-cigarette company of illegally advertising to young people and failing to warn consumers about the potential health risks of using Juul products.

The suit also accuses Juul of failing to verify the age of California consumers and violating the privacy rights of minors by keeping the email addresses of underage buyers who failed age verification on Juul’s website, and using those emails to send them marketing materials.

The complaint was filed in Alameda County Superior Court.

The state jointly filed the suit with Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey. Becerra said it comes after a 21-month investigation into Juul practices.

The legal age to buy e-cigarettes and other tobacco products in California is 21.

“Juul ran Big Tobacco’s playbook and its plays, and the results were predictable,” Becerra said. “Millions of teens and young Americans now use its products. While Juul profits soared, users became addicted and their health was compromised.”

According to the complaint, Juul failed to check customers’ names and date of birth against government databases, regularly shipped products to fake names and addresses, and sent nicotine “pods” to teens who had made fake warranty claims for replacement pods.

“As a result, children, teens and young adults were able to avoid legal and parental oversight and break the law,” Lacey said.

Juul said: “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.”

The company noted that as part of that, it recently stopped selling mint Juul pods in the U.S. and stopped advertising its products on broadcast, print and digital media.

“Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers and we do not intend to attract underage users,” the company said.

Becerra’s suit seeks to recover $2,500 per violation from Juul to cover the cost of addiction treatment and public health awareness programs.

Tobacco use costs Californians $13.3 billion each year in health care expenses, $3.5 billion of which is paid for by taxpayers, the suit says.

Becerra joins the attorneys general of North Carolina, Illinois, Massachusetts, Colorado, Connecticut and the District of Columbia, who are also investigating or suing Juul over its youth-marketing tactics.

The scrutiny from the states comes as the White House is softening its stance on e-cigarettes. President Trump is backing away from the idea of banning most flavored vaping products.

Trump announced a proposed ban on flavored e-cigarettes in September, saying he wanted parents to be aware of what a problem vaping had become among teens. He made the announcement in the presence of first lady Melania Trump, who does not believe e-cigarettes should be available to children.

But two White House and campaign officials say Trump has since grown reluctant to move forward after becoming convinced that such a step could alienate voters he needs for re-election who would be financially or otherwise affected by such a ban.

The officials were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.

Lobbyists, conservative groups and Republican lawmakers have also warned Trump that a vaping crackdown could cost him with voters.

Juul hired former White House spokesman Josh Raffel, who worked closely with presidential advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, in 2018 and has added lobbyists with administration ties in recent months, according to Politico.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Catherine Ho is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email:  Twitter: @Cat_Ho

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