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Anne Arundel, Howard counties sue Juul, accusing e-cigarette maker of targeting children

Anne Arundel and Howard counties sued e-cigarette maker Juul Labs and affiliated companies, joining a growing onslaught against the billion-dollar company over claims that it marketed its products to children.

They joined Garrett County in filing separate but identical federal lawsuits against the California-based company in early April, following the lead of Montgomery County, which retained a national law firm late last year. The lawsuits allege, among other things, violations of Maryland’s public nuisance laws and violations of the federal racketeering statutes known as RICO.

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“This lawsuit is critical in highlighting the public health repercussions of e-cigarettes, and we will continue to advance these complaints to ensure all our residents can be healthy and thriving,” Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said in a statement.

The suits allege that Juul explicitly studied and followed “Big Tobacco’s playbook” and launched a “blatantly youth-oriented campaign” that local governments are struggling to combat.

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Several Maryland counties have filed lawsuits against Juul electronic cigarettes and its parent company, accusing it of targeting children and violating federal RICO laws.
Several Maryland counties have filed lawsuits against Juul electronic cigarettes and its parent company, accusing it of targeting children and violating federal RICO laws. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Instead of Joe Camel, the e-cigarette company courted social media “influencers” and hashtags and took out ads on youth-centered websites, allowing it to “operate an even more pervasive, insidious, and successful viral marketing campaign than its predecessors in the tobacco industry,” the suit alleges.

Juul “has compelled a generation of youth, who were never cigarette smokers, into nicotine addiction and forced local governments to spend significant amounts of time and resources combating the youth vaping crisis sweeping their communities,” the lawsuit alleges.

As questions were raised and regulators began to take notice, the lawsuits allege, the companies “are now working together to deny that [Juul Labs Inc.'s] products are marketed to and designed for youth and nonsmokers while maintaining Juul’s market dominance — which would not be possible if the customer base were in fact only adult smokers seeking to quit."

The company said in a statement that it “does not intend to attract underage users.” It said it has halted television, print and digital advertising and eliminated most flavors in response to concerns by government officials and others.

“We will continue to reset the vapor category in the U.S. and seek to earn the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and transition adult smokers from combustible cigarettes,” the statement said.

Montgomery County filed its lawsuit in October as the county council there introduced a number of related bills. The three new lawsuits were filed in conjunction with the same Florida-based law firm, Robbins, Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP, and they build off the Montgomery County complaint. The Florida firm did not respond to requests for comment.

The effort is part of a wider front against the company. In February, a coalition of 39 states announced that it would look into the marketing and sales of vaping products by Juul Labs, including whether the company targeted youths and made misleading claims about nicotine content in its devices.

Only certain states disclosed their involvement in the probe. Raquel Coombs, spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, said Friday that the office does not confirm its involvement in investigations.

But she noted Frosh’s interest in the issue by pointing to a bill he pushed in the most recent legislative session that would have ended the sale of flavored tobacco products. The bill died in committee.

Baltimore County spokesman Sean Naron said the county is “assessing its options” about a potential lawsuit. Carroll County spokesperson Chris Winebrenner said the commission has not discussed the topic.

Spokeswoman Cynthia Mumby said Harford County was approached about joining the lawsuit about six months ago but decided to not move forward until officials received more data to make a final decision.

A spokesperson for Baltimore City did not respond to requests for comment Sunday about Juul.

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Also, on April 1, the Federal Trade Commission sued Juul and Marlboro maker Altria Group, which invested almost $13 billion in the company in late 2018, on antitrust grounds. The complaint says the companies decided to stop competing and that Altria would make a substantial investment in Juul.

Altria, based in Richmond, Virginia, is also a defendant in the county lawsuits.

Last year, Maryland prohibited the sale of tobacco products — including e-cigarettes — to those ages 18 to 21, but carved out an exemption for members of the military.

President Donald Trump late last year also signed a law raising the minimum age to purchase all tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21 nationwide. Juul supported the measure, citing the need to curb underage vaping.

The counties’ lawsuits contain significant redactions. Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Howard County, said the redacted information comes from internal documents produced by “certain defendants” and are covered by a protective order.

Baltimore Sun reporter McKenna Oxenden and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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