The Tulalip Tribes of Washington are the latest plaintiffs to sue e-cigarette behemoth Juul Labs for targeting adolescents — including tribal youth — with misleading ads that downplayed the product's addictive properties.
The 316-page lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for Western Washington, alleges that Juul and its subsidiaries violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, also known as RICO, as well as Washington's public nuisance laws. The tribes claim Juul engineered a fraudulent advertising campaign that transcended state boundaries and tribal sovereignty to profit from a new generation of people addicted to nicotine.
The Food and Drug Administration ordered Juul on June 23 to pull its products from the market only to be blocked a day later by a federal appeals court. On Wednesday, the FDA suspended its initial ban while it reopens its review of Juul's e-cigarettes. The company can still sell its products during the review process.
Juul faces a flurry of lawsuits, including a massive multidistrict case that combines over 2,000 individual suits. Just last year, Juul paid $22.5 million to settle with a lawsuit from the state of Washington over a similar claim — that the company knowingly targeted teenagers with its products and misled the public about their addictive nature.
The company admitted no wrongdoing and said it settled to "avoid further litigation." The settlement with Washington followed two previous multimillion-dollar settlements in Arizona and North Carolina.
In an April statement, Juul acknowledged the settlement was one step in a larger company "reset" and part of its effort to "resolve issues from the past."
"We support the Washington State Attorney General's plan to deploy resources to address underage use, such as future monitoring and enforcement," the statement said.
The Tulalip lawsuit said e-cigarette use was "concerningly high" among tribal youth. The 2018 state health assessment found that among Washington's 10th graders, about a quarter of students who identified as "American Indian/Alaska Native" used e-cigarettes, which was a greater percentage than students of other ethnicities. Native students also smoked at higher rates than students of other ethnicities, the report found.
In addition to Juul, the Tulalip suit names cigarette giants Altria and Phillip Morris as co-defendants, along with Juul's founders, James Monsees and Adam Bowen, and investors Nicolas Pritzker, Huyoung Huh and Riaz Valani.
"The Tulalip Tribes has filed suit to recover costs associated with the rising public health epidemic resulting from vaping and Juul's marketing and sale of e-cigarettes to minors, and to recover the future expenditures that will be needed to address this problem," Niki Cleary, a tribal spokesperson, said in an email to The Seattle Times.
Representatives for Juul did not immediately respond to an emailed press inquiry.