Illinois officials are suing e-cigarette provider Juul Labs in a lawsuit prosecutors described as the "first of its kind in the United States," according to the Lake County State's Attorney's office.
Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim filed the lawsuit alongside nunmerous Chicago law firms Tuesday in the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit Court of Lake County accusing Juul Labs of "intentionally pushing teens to become hooked on nicotine-aided e-cigarettes through deceptive marketing campaigns."
"Just like cigarette companies did in the past, Juul preyed on teens by using advertisements that glamorized their product in order to get kids hooked on nicotine," Nerheim said in a statement. "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."
Among the campaigns cited in the suit was one that appeared on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter encouraging people to take photos of themselves using the product and post them using the Juul hashtag.
"Those ads were designed to convey powerful messages like popularity, peer acceptance and a positive self-image from using Juul, and the ads consistently used attractive young models smoking Juul’s e-cigarette while partying in provocative settings," a release from the Lake County State's Attorney's office read. "By doing this, Juul knowingly lured kids into smoking by targeting them with their sleek product and promises of popularity."
Juul Labs said in a statement it has "never marketed to youth" and has "exited Instagram and Facebook."
"We have no higher priority than to prevent youth usage of our products which is why we have taken aggressive, industry leading actions to combat youth usage. We strongly advocate for Tobacco 21 legislation, we stopped the sale of non-tobacco and non-menthol based flavored JUULpods to our traditional retail store partners, enhanced our online age-verification process and strengthened our retailer compliance program with over 2,000 secret shopper visits per month," spokesman Ted Kwong said in a statement. "Finally, we continue to develop technologies to further restrict underage access."
The lawsuit comes as the Illinois Department of Public Health warned that hospitalizations, potentially due to vaping, are increasing, though they did not say which products the young people in such cases were using.
Six youths were hospitalized in the state for respiratory issues after experiencing coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue. Some also experienced vomiting and diarrhea, according to health officials.
“While the short- and long-term effects of vaping are still being researched, these recent hospitalizations heighten the need for parents talk with their teens about vaping and for both to understand the consequences and potential dangers of vaping,” Dr. Ngozi Ezike, IDPH director, said in a statement.
The department is working with other local health departments, health departments in other states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Adminsitration to investigate the vaping products the hospitalized youths used and where they were from.
Ezike said vaping among teens has increased dramatically over the last several years.
On Friday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported 11 confirmed and seven suspected cases of severe pulmonary disease among adolescents, who reported vaping.
Similarly, the Indiana State Department of Health sent an advisory last week to Indiana hospitals and other health care providers after the states of Illinois and Wisconsin reported that numerous teenagers and young adults were hospitalized with severe respiratory illnesses.
Minnesota health officials also reported severe lung damage among young people tied to vaping, with Children's Minnesota finding four cases of lung injury in the Minneapolis area, according to NBC affiliate Kare 11.
Last mont, Juul Labs was called before Congress as House lawmakers accused the company of fueling the vaping craze among high schoolers.
Co-founder James Monsees testified that Juul developed its blockbuster vaping device and flavor pods for adult smokers who want to stop. He acknowledged statistics showing "a significant number of underage Americans are using e-cigarettes, including Juul products."
"We must trace the origins that led to this epidemic," said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, who chairs the economic subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
The Democrat convened two hearings after launching an investigation in June into Juul's marketing, technology and business practices. The privately held company has grown into a multibillion-dollar business on the success of its small, discrete vaping device and nicotine pods.
Neither Juul nor any vaping product is approved yet to help smokers quit.