MASSAPEQUA, NY — A Massapequa 19-year-old has filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against the makers of JuuL e-cigarettes, accusing the companies of marketing the tobacco products to children. Attorneys for Shawn Hochhauser filed the lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court against Juul Labs, Altria Group and Philip Morris USA.
Juul Labs makes and markets tobacco products including e-cigarettes, vaporizers, e-liquids and components. Philip Morris USA, a subsidiary of Altria, makes and sells traditional cigarettes, and both are part owners of Juul. The New York Post first reported the lawsuit.
Hochhauser started using Juul e-cigarettes when he was 15, believing they were safe and wouldn’t cause him harm based on information in the company’s advertisements in stores and on social media, the lawsuit said. The company used themes such as love, attractiveness, sexuality, popularity, parties, social events, celebrity and being “cool” to market its products, the lawsuit said.
“These advertisements and marketing campaigns include themes specifically designed to attract new users, including minors, to use JUUL products,” the attorneys wrote.
In one ad included in the lawsuit, a man holds an e-cigarette while kissing a woman.
Hochhauser was unaware the e-cigarette products contained high levels of addictive nicotine and was drawn to various flavors such as mint and mango.
Had he known they were more addictive than traditional cigarettes and lead to health problems, he wouldn’t have used the products, the lawsuit said. Instead, Hochhauser smoked about one or two full pods a day and developed “severe” health problems as a result, including severe coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, increased phlegm and mucus, throat irritation, and even vocal changes.
“Due to his JUUL e-cigarette use, [Hochhauser] suffers, and continues to suffer, adverse consequences including, but not limited to, severe emotional distress and medical expenses,” attorneys wrote.
But Juul Labs called Hochhauser’s lawsuit baseless and emphasized that its products have always been intended as a cigarette alternative for adult smokers.
“We have never marketed to youth and do not want any non-nicotine users to try our products,” company spokesman Austin Finan told Patch in a statement Wednesday. “We have launched an aggressive action plan to combat underage use as it is antithetical to our mission.”
The company strongly supports so-called Tobacco 21 laws — a campaign aimed at raising the minimum legal age for tobacco and nicotine sales to 21 — and stopped selling non-tobacco- and non-menthol-based flavored pods at its traditional retail store partners, the company said.
Juul also took steps to improve how it verifies users ages on its website and conducts about 2,000 “secret shopper” a month to make sure retail stores are complying with the law.
Other steps the company has taken:
- Shutting down its Facebook and Instagram accounts.
- Removing inappropriate social media content created by others.
- Deploying technology at retail stores to automatically restrict the sale of e-cigarette products until a government-issued ID is scanned to verify age and authenticity.
“It was our hope that others in the category would self-impose similar restrictions to address youth usage, and it is now our hope that regulators will impose these same restrictions to protect youth and to preserve the opportunity to eliminate combustible cigarettes, the deadliest legal consumer product known to man,” said Finan.
Patch has also reached out to Altria and will update when we hear back. Altria outlined marketing practices for Philip Morris USA, writing that its trade programs include features aimed at preventing underage access to tobacco products. This includes:
- Training store workers who sell tobacco products using or something similar.
- Displaying We Card signs or something similar.
- Using age verification tools.
- Placing retail signs informing adults to refrain from buying tobacco products for kids.
- Complying with a 1998 settlement agreement in which cigarette makers are banned from marketing to kids.
We offer additional financial incentives to retailers who refrain from placing any cigarettes, cigarette signs or brand imagery associated with cigarettes on top of or below the front of the selling counter. We also limit the location, size and amount of PM USA interior and exterior signs at retail.
The lawsuit comes as a mysterious vaping-related illness sickens hundreds across the country.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating an outbreak of more than 800 lung injury cases spanning 46 states and one U.S. territory. So far, 12 people have died.
In each case, patients said they used e-cigarette products or vaped. Most of the vaping-related illnesses appear to involve marijuana.
Of the 514 cases in which data was collected on the substances, 77 percent said they’d use products containing THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Furthermore, 36 percent said they’d only used products containing THC.
Additionally, about 57 percent of patients said they’d used products containing nicotine. Just 16 percent said they’d only smoked nicotine-containing products.
Importantly, the CDC maintained that no single product or substance was linked to all lung injury cases. And of the 771 patients for which sex and age data were available, 16 percent were youths.