ST. PAUL — The state of Minnesota on Wednesday, Dec. 4, sued a top e-cigarette company, alleging it deliberately marketed in a way that made its products attractive to teens.

State officials announced they'd filed a lawsuit in Hennepin County district court alleging the e-cigarette company Juul Labs used marketing materials aimed at young people and violated Minnesota's public nuisance law when it used misleading advertising.

Gov. Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison flanked by students at a news conference at the Capitol said they'd seek damages from the company to fund vaping education campaigns and to repay the state and Minnesotans who'd experienced lung damage or nicotine addiction associated with the products.

"This was a target at our children. It was a target for simple greed and simple profit," Walz said. "They knew exactly what they were doing. They studied to know exactly what they were doing. They knew the harm they were doing and they continued to do it."

The move comes after a state survey of Minnesota students found that the number of 11th-grade students who reported vaping in the last month jumped 54% between 2016 and 2019, with one in four 11th graders reporting they had vaped in the last 30 days. And the number of eighth-grade students who reported vaping within the last 30 days nearly doubled within that timeframe.

The increase in youth e-cigarette use turned a 10-year trend of decreasing rates of tobacco rates among Minnesota teens. And physicians report that they've seen a dramatic uptick in teens with nicotine addiction stemming from the vaping products.

And Minnesotans of all ages have faced serious lung injuries stemming from use of the products. The Minnesota Department of Health reports that 125 people have sustained vaping and e-cigarette related lung injuries, and three people had died from those injuries.

At least three other states — California, New York and North Carolina — have filed similar lawsuits seeking damages from Juul in response to the impact the products have had on teens. And Ellison said he considered filing with attorneys general in those states, but wanted to take a more Minnesota-focused approach.

Ellison in his lawsuit alleges that Juul violated Minnesota's public nuisance law and consumer protection laws and breached its duty to take reasonable care. And he said the suit follows a tradition in his office of going after companies that would target Minnesota's young people, much like the efforts to sue tobacco companies for targeting Minnesota kids.

“Minnesota law just doesn’t allow companies to say one thing and do another, so we're holding them accountable for that," Ellison said. "They have a deception problem. That's the problem."

He said the lawsuit doesn't touch on the illicit use of the vaping devices which is believed to have caused lung injuries. But Ellison suggested the state could pursue litigation in that area in the future.

A spokesperson for Juul Labs said the company remains committed to earning the public trust and working with officials to deter underage use and to move adults who use traditional cigarettes to vapor alternatives. And the company has taken steps to prevent underage customers from using its products.

'I had no clue what I was inhaling'

Will Gitler and Claire Hering, 17 and 16 respectively, spoke to reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, about their experience using and quitting vaping products. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
Will Gitler and Claire Hering, 17 and 16 respectively, spoke to reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, about their experience using and quitting vaping products. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Health officials and teenagers who'd struggled to quit vaping said e-cigarette companies had advertised the product in a way that made teenagers believe it was safer than other drugs and that wouldn't cause damage as combustible cigarettes do. And that resulted in the uptick in nicotine addiction among Minnesota teens.

"I had no clue what was inside of it. I had no clue what I was inhaling," Claire Hering, a junior at Hopkins High School who'd recently quit after two years using vaping products, said. "When I initially hit my first vape I was told it was nothing, it was better than a cigarette, it was better than most drugs. That's always what I heard and that wasn't the case for me."

Walz's administration in reaction to the growing crisis of nicotine addiction among young people who vape has launched a broader public education campaign around the potential dangers of using e-cigarettes and other vaping products. And in October, the DFL governor, along with state education and health officials, held a series of conversations with students in schools around the state.

And in the run-up to the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have floated ideas to curb the use of e-cigarettes among teens. Legislators have said they'll take up proposals to raise the legal age to buy tobacco and nicotine products to 21, outlaw flavored nicotine products and ban online sales of vaping products.

But some have said lawmakers should wait to outlaw products until the science around vaping-related injuries more clearly explains what has caused lung injuries, and in some cases, deaths associated with e-cigarettes and vaping.

Scientists have yet to confirm what spurs dangerous lung injuries associated with vaping. But recent studies point to a possible connection between the use of illicit THC vaping liquids containing the chemical vitamin E acetate, which is used in some liquids or cartridges to thicken or dilute the products and injuries.

The Minnesota Department of Health last week released a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that 11 of 12 Minnesotans with vaping-related lung injuries used illicit THC cartridges that tested positive for vitamin E acetate. And newer THC vaping products tested consistently contained the synthetic form of vitamin E, the study found, whereas older varieties didn't.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 2,290 cases and 47 deaths attributed to the vaping illness as of Nov. 20.

The CDC continues to recommend e-cigarette users stop using their devices, whether they contain nicotine or THC.

Forum News Service health reporter Jeremy Fugleberg contributed to this report.