Juul Labs, the vaping company that has long insisted it never marketed its products to teenagers, purchased ad space in its early days on numerous youth-focused websites, including those of Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network, Seventeen magazine and educational sites for middle school and high school students, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by the Massachusetts attorney general.
The suit, brought by the state’s attorney general, Maura Healey, presents some of the starkest evidence to date that the company was targeting young, nonsmokers during its launch period, from June 2015 through early 2016.
Juul executives declined to address the specific charges in the complaint. Instead, a company spokesman, Austin Finan, issued a statement that pointed to recent actions Juul has taken to combat underage vaping and said: “We remain focused on resetting the vapor category in the U.S. and earning 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.”
According to the lawsuit, Juul rejected an initial marketing proposal by a marketing firm it had hired, Cult Collective, that would have branded it as a technology company with a target audience of adult smokers. The proposed campaign featured images of outdated technology like clunky telephones and joysticks, with a picture of a sleek Juul e-cigarette and the words, “The evolution of smoking. Finally, a truly satisfying alternative.”
Instead, the lawsuit says, Juul dropped Cult Collective and hired an in-house interim art director to produce “Vaporized,” a youth-oriented campaign, featuring beautiful models in provocative poses.
“Juul decided against doing an ad campaign designed for an older audience and instead specifically chose one that targeted young people,” said Ms. Healey. “The information that we uncovered in our investigation demonstrates Juul’s intent — they didn’t accidentally create an advertising campaign with young and attractive people —- that’s what they were going for all along.”
Juul has been the focus of growing public anger and concern over what federal officials have called “an epidemic” of underage vaping. The company’s device, sometimes referred to as the iPhone of e-cigarettes, quickly became fashionable among high school students, and as Juul picked up market share, it became the focus of numerous federal and state investigations into its advertising and sales practices. In response, the company has vehemently denied intentionally marketing to youths and insisted its purpose was to help adult smokers switch to a safer alternative.
The 66-page complaint includes images of young models that it claims were displayed in digital ads on websites, mobile apps and social media. It includes an extensive list of sites where Juul products were promoted that the lawsuit says were clearly aimed at teenagers and even younger children.
The suit says Juul paid a company to place digital promotions across websites.
The list where they ran includes educational sites like basic-mathematics.com, coolmath.com, math-aids.com, mathplayground.com, mathway.com, onlinemathlearning.com, and purplemath.com. and socialstudiesforkids.com.
It includes sites targeted to young girls such as dailydressupgames.com, didigames.com, forhergames.com, games2girls.com, girlgames.com, and girlsgogames.com.
It also includes sites geared to high school students looking at colleges, like collegeconfidential.com and sites aimed at much younger children, including allfreekidscrafts.com, hellokids.com, and kidsgameheroes.com.
Dr. Robert Jackler, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, who studies vaping industry marketing, called the lawsuit an important revelation.
“It adds to the compelling body of evidence that the viral uptake of Juul among youth was neither unanticipated nor unintentional as the company maintains, but rather a result of a comprehensive and purposeful effort by the company to recruit underage users,” he said.
The lawsuit charges that Juul attempted to recruit celebrities and social media influencers with large numbers of underage followers, such as Miley Cyrus, Cara Delevingne, Kristen Stewart, and social media influencers Luka Sabbat and Tavi Gevinson.
It also claims that Juul shipped e-cigarettes to consumers who gave student email addresses at high schools.
“Juul allowed more than 1,200 accounts to be established for Massachusetts consumers using school email addresses, including email addresses associated with high schools in Beverly, Malden and Braintree and shipped its products to recipients with obviously fabricated names, like ‘PodGod,’ ” the lawsuit states.
The complaint also contained an email sent from a Juul customer service address advising a young customer how to get around age restrictions. In the email from firstname.lastname@example.org dated Feb. 21, 2018, the complaint says, “Don from the ‘Juul Care Team’ told a consumer whose order had been canceled due to an age verification failure: “The legal age to purchase nicotine products in Milton, Mass. is 21 years old and above. If you have friends or relatives in Quincy, Mass., you may use their address as a shipping address for your order.”
The lawsuit claims that Juul worked with hundreds of Massachusetts stores to sell its products, including approximately 850 stores the company knew were cited by the Food and Drug Administration for attempting to sell tobacco products to underage teenagers. Although Juul caught some of these stores trying to sell its devices and pods to youths, the lawsuit says, it continued to work with those stores.
The lawsuit comes at a time when Juul is struggling to improve its reputation. K.C. Crosthwaite, who replaced Kevin Burns as chief executive in September, stopped sales of most flavored e-cigarettes ahead of the recent F.D.A. flavor ban.
Juul, like other e-cigarette companies, has until May to apply for F.D.A. approval to stay on the market. The F.D.A. will consider several factors, among them, whether Juul can keep its products out of the hands of minors, and whether its devices and pods are safe.
Earlier this week, the state of Pennsylvania sued Juul, alleging that the company misled consumers about the addictive nature of its liquid nicotine pods and marketed them to youths. Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general, asked the court to ban Juul, or, barring that, ban all non-tobacco-flavored Juul products.
Arizona, California, Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina are among the other states that have sued Juul over its marketing practices, as well as the District of Columbia.