Louisville Metro Government has filed a federal lawsuit against JUUL Labs, Inc., the largest manufacturer and seller of e-cigarettes and vaping products, for its role in fueling the community health crisis of nicotine addiction, especially among young people.
The suit, filed today in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California under the direction of Mayor Greg Fischer and Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell, seeks damages to help Louisville combat the health crisis of nicotine addiction that has impacted the city.
At a time when cigarette smoking is on the decline, especially among young people, data shows that Kentucky has the second highest rate of e-cigarette use in the country. The Louisville Metro complaint alleges that JUUL is responsible for an explosion of nicotine use and addiction, here and across the country.
By marketing and selling the product as a safe alternative to cigarette smoking, JUUL’s actions have contributed to an entire generation using a product that has never been proven safe, the suit says. And as a result, nicotine use among America’s youth is sharply on the rise. E-cigarette use in general increased 78 percent among high-school students and 48 percent among middle-school students from 2017 to 2018.
“From the very first day that I took office, my team and I have been working to make Louisville a healthier city, because health is the foundational element of everything we do as people and as a community,” said Mayor Fischer. “JUUL’s goal has been to turn our kids into nicotine addicts and, in terms of the company’s focus, long-term paying customers. This has serious medical and economic repercussions for our community.”
JUUL, in concert with its advertising agencies and others, followed Big Tobacco’s playbook in developing a product and marketing strategy to appeal to young people. JUUL sought to portray its products as trend-setting and used by those that teenagers admire. JUUL promoted itself as a safer alternative to traditional tobacco use, and utilized social media extensively, mindful that those platforms are teenagers’ predominant communication forums.
“JUUL delivers levels of nicotine cranked up much higher than traditional cigarettes, and they’ve targeted their product to impressionable kids,” said O’Connell. “This has been a surgical strike against our young, addicting a new generation to nicotine for life. The damage is done, and JUUL must be held accountable for their actions.”
Nicotine is a toxic chemical associated with cardiovascular, reproductive, and immunosuppressive problems. Research has also shown that e-cigarette users are at an increased risk of strokes and heart attacks, including blood pressure and arterial stiffness, which increase the risk for strokes and heart attacks. Other than its use as a stimulant, nicotine’s only other known use is as an insecticide. It’s been banned as a pesticide in the U.S. since 2014.
“Research tells us that nicotine addiction in their developing brains can leave our children and young people vulnerable to learning and attention deficits and to future substance use disorders” said Dr. Sarah Moyer, Chief Health Strategist and director of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness. “It’s up to us to keep them out of harm’s way. We must take decisive action now to protect the next generation.”
Louisville Metro’s complaint alleges the following causes of action against JUUL:
1) Violation of the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (“RICO”) Act,
2) Public Nuisance,
4) Gross Negligence,
5) Punitive Damages,
6) Strict Product Liability – Failure to Warn,
7) Strict Product Liability – Design Defect, and
8) Unjust Enrichment.
Louisville Metro filed in California as all litigation involving vaping and e-cigarettes has been aggregated into a multidistrict litigation (MDL). Judge William Orrick III will preside over these now more than 200 cases. Several other states and local governments have joined the MDL; Louisville is one of the largest municipalities involved. Louisville is also one of the more than 2,000 state, local and other governments in the National Prescription Opiate MDL in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.
The city has hired the law firms of Hendy Johnson Vaughn Emery of Louisville and Wagstaff & Cartmell LLP of Kansas City, Mo. as outside counsel in this matter. The lead attorney, Ronald Johnson of Louisville, has twice been appointed by federal judges as lead counsel in MDL cases, and served on the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee for another. He also recently filed suit against JUUL on behalf of a number of Kentucky school districts, including Jefferson County Public Schools and districts in Fayette, Bullitt and Marion County.
The outside attorneys will pay all expenses to litigate the case; Louisville Metro is incurring no costs. The attorneys will receive their contingent fee plus reasonable expenses as awarded and approved by the courts, only if Louisville receives an award at trial or in a settlement.