An Athens teenager’s vaping of Juul electronic cigarettes caused severe nicotine addiction, permanent brain changes, and mood disorders so severe his parents sent him to an out-of-state military school, according to a lawsuit filed in July by a high-profile law firm.
The complaint alleges 17-year-old “A.B.,” the son of Brian Bentley of Athens, at age 16 first used vapes by Juul Labs, which is a defendant in the suit along with others involved in the production and marketing of the popular brand of e-cigarettes. According to the complaint, he quickly became addicted to nicotine.
"He would Juul during class, at home, while driving, practically anywhere that he could get away with it," according to the complaint filed by Jere Beasley of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles of Montgomery.
“He struggled to function without nicotine, and when he tried to quit using the product, he would shake, have mood swings, and become antsy and irritable, even to the point of lying to his family.”
The 89-page complaint filed in Limestone County Circuit Court focuses on the marketing of the product, introduced in 2015, and on its design. By using young-looking models, intensive social media campaigns, offering kid-friendly flavors and designing its product to mimic a USB drive for easy concealment, Juul Labs' goal was to to addict young people to the product and guarantee long-term profits, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit also focuses on Juul's formulation of the nicotine, which the plaintiff alleges was designed to eliminate the burning sensation first-time smokers experience in their throat with tobacco cigarettes and to maximize the amount of nicotine inhaled.
In statements to The Daily and to potential regulators, Juul has presented its product as being designed exclusively as a safer alternative to more harmful tobacco cigarettes.
This is disingenuous, attorney Joseph VanZandt, Beasley's partner, said last week.
"They designed a product that was made to be used by people that had never used nicotine before. They manipulated the nicotine to take away all the harshness. It was designed in a way that made minors want to start and continue using this product. That wasn’t a design to appeal to people who were already smoking," VanZandt said. "When you add that into the marketing, they were clearly targeting people who were nicotine-naive."
The complaint alleges that risks of Juul e-cigarettes, and specifically the nicotine they contain, include nicotine addiction, increases in blood pressure, vascular damage, increased risk of stroke, heart attacks and other cardiovascular injuries, permanent brain changes, mood disorders and cancer.
"We have never marketed to anyone underage,” said Juul spokesman Ted Kwong last week. ”Our current advertising features testimonials from former adult smokers who made the switch off combustible tobacco with the Juul device, and we are ensuring that this campaign is targeted at adult smokers age 35 and up."
JUUL Labs exists, he said, to help adult smokers switch from tobacco cigarettes.
Several studies indicate e-cigarette vapor is less toxic than cigarette smoke. In Alabama, there are 8,600 smoking-related deaths each year, according to the American Lung Association.
"At the end of the day, safer does not mean safe," said VanZandt. "Some of our experts explain the comparison like this: It’s like saying jumping off a 200-story building is safer than jumping off a 400-story building."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration assumed regulatory jurisdiction over e-cigarettes as tobacco products in 2016, but has said it doesn't want to over-regulate an emerging industry that could provide a safer option for smokers.
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded "e-cigarette use is associated with increased risk for cigarette initiation and use, particularly among low-risk youths."
Data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates high school students using vaping devices climbed from 1.5% to 13.4% between 2011 and 2014. According to the CDC, that rate jumped to 21% in 2018. Vaping among middle school students during that time span increased from 0.6% to 3.9%, according to the CDC.
“The troubling epidemic of youth vaping threatens to erase the years of progress we’ve made combating tobacco use among kids," Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless said in a July 22 statement. “We cannot allow the next generation of young people to become addicted to nicotine."
Kwong said Juul agrees.
“We do not want non-nicotine users to buy Juul products, and are committed to preventing underage access to our products. We strongly support raising the national minimum purchasing age for all tobacco and vapor products to 21, and have implemented a comprehensive action plan to combat underage access, appeal and use of Juul products,” he said.
Kwong said Juul no longer sells anything but tobacco- or menthol-flavored pods — the tank containing the nicotine and flavoring — to brick-and-mortar retailers that lack age restrictions on access. Others flavors are available online, but Kwong touts the age-verification features on the company’s website.
Among the flavors available through Juul’s website are mango, fruit, cucumber and crème.
Kwong said JUUL has shut down its Facebook and Instagram accounts “while working constantly to remove inappropriate social media content generated by others.”
Too little, too late, argues VanZandt.
"Their current ads have no impact whatsoever on the clients we represent," he said. "The damage has been done. All that matters is that when they did start selling this product in 2015, their first couple of years on market, they did heavily market toward minors. They lit a match and started a wildfire, and that wildfire is burning out of control. Juul use has become rampant among teenagers."
Juul Labs spun off from Pax Labs Inc., also a defendant, in 2017. The lawsuit also names as defendants Altria Group Inc. and its subsidiary Philip Morris USA Inc. Altria bought a 35% share of Juul Labs in 2018.
VanZandt said the Limestone County case is the sixth his firm has filed against Juul. The lawsuit argues Juul is liable under theories of product liability — both design defect and failure to warn of dangers — as well as negligence, fraud, unjust enrichment and other causes of action.
According to the complaint filed in Limestone County, any changes JUUL has made in its marketing strategy were too late for A.B.
“Plaintiff first tried Juul in or around September 2017, when the device became especially ubiquitous among his high school friends,” according to the lawsuit. “Part of the attraction for A.B. was the discreet slick design that would avoid detection from teachers, coaches or other authority figures.”
The complaint includes detailed claims alleging how Juul manipulated the formulation of the pods to deliver more nicotine with less of the throat burn that discourages first-time smokers, and VanZandt said that's what makes it clear that Juul is seeking to sell its product to nonsmokers.
"If you’re a smoker, you’re used to the taste of tobacco; you don't need fruity flavors. You’re used to the throat hit. They design a product that completely removes the throat hit," he said. "The sexy story here is the marketing — the Instagram ads, the young-looking models. But that’s not the full story. This goes much deeper than that. ... They should change the way their product is designed, and there’s no indication they’re going to change that."
According to the complaint, A.B.’s addiction led him to increase his consumption to two Juul pods per day — the nicotine equivalent of 40 tobacco cigarettes — and to suffer from mood swings and engage in deceptive behavior in order to satisfy the cravings, the complaint alleges.
“Late December 2018, A.B.’s parents had had enough of the deceptive and sketchy behavior. On Jan. 2, 2019, Plaintiff Brian Bentley made the decision to send A.B. to military school in Texas that would reinforce Marine principles of discipline,” according to the July 15 complaint. “Since he has returned home for the summer, his parents are even considering switching schools to take A.B. out of the environment where he became addicted. The problem lies in that Juul has infiltrated every high school in the area.”
Athens City Schools Superintendent Trey Holladay did not return a call Friday.
In a law that took effect Thursday, the state of Alabama now prohibits the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under 19; prohibits advertising vaping products near schools, playgrounds and other places frequented by minors; and places the regulation of e-cigarettes under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
The Decatur City Council in January banned the smoking of e-cigarettes in public places such as restaurants and bars.