Juul Bought Ad Space on Kids' Websites, Including Cartoon Network, According to Lawsuit

In a statement to CNN Wednesday, a Juul spokesman said that the company does "not intend to attract underage users"

Packages of Juul mint flavored e-cigarettes are displayed at San Rafael Smokeshop on November 07, 2019 in San Rafael, California
Juul products. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty

A new lawsuit is accusing Juul, Labs Inc. of targeting a young audience for its products.

According to multiple outlets including NBC News and CNN, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office filed a lawsuit on Wednesday that alleges the electronic cigarette company bought ad space on websites “highly attractive to children, adolescents in middle school and high school and underage college students” after its launch almost five years ago.

These include strictly schoolwork-focused websites like socialstudiesforkids.com and coolmath-games.com, as well as widely known brands aimed at child and teen audiences such as Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Seventeen magazine, NBC News reports.

The suit claims that the company’s initial ad campaign deliberately sought out models who ended up appearing “inappropriately or unsuitably young” in the ads, described as “New York trendsetters who embody the Juul brand and speak to millennial consumers,” reports CNN.

A spokesperson for Juul, Austin Finan, tells PEOPLE in a statement, “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.”

“As part of that process in the U.S., we are preparing comprehensive and scientifically rigorous Premarket Tobacco Product Applications; stopped the sale of flavored pods other than tobacco and menthol in November; halted our; television, print and digital product advertising; implemented a $1 billion restructuring plan, refrained from lobbying the Administration on its draft flavor guidance and support the final policy,” he adds. “Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers and we do not intend to attract underage users.”

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An illustration shows a man exhaling smoke from an electronic cigarette in Washington, DC on October 2, 2018.
Man using electronic cigarette. EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, e-cigarette use (or vaping) is on the rise among youth. From 2018 to 2019, the number of middle- and high-school students who were using e-cigarettes rose from 3.6 million to 5.4 million.

In addition, through mid-January, the CDC reported at least 60 people have died from vaping-related causes, with an additional 2,668 from all 50 states reported hospitalized with significant lung problems related to vaping.

Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, a New York City-based family and emergency medicine physician who has treated many vaping patients, recently told PEOPLE that vaping affects brain development and can have an impact on mood, behavior, thinking, decision-making skills and judgment. The artificial chemicals used in vaping liquids can damage and destroy cells in the lungs, causing inflammation and cell death. Certain flavors of vape cartridges “literally kill bronchial cells,” she said, and have been banned.

Vaping can also cause nicotine toxicity — which can result in seizures, Nesheiwat said — and can even lead teens to become smokers. “Many people who vape will go on to become regular cigarette smokers in six months to a year,” she told PEOPLE. “Smoking is the No. 1 cause of death in this country; it causes more deaths than drugs, guns, car accidents, HIV and alcohol combined.”

An illustration shows the contents of an electronic Juul cigarette box in Washington, DC October 2, 2018. - In just three years, the electronic cigarette manufacturer Juul has swallowed the American market with its vaporettes in the shape of a USB key. Its success represents a public health dilemma for health authorities in the United States and elsewhere.
Juul products. EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty

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This past October, Juul announced that they were planning to stop offering several flavors in the U.S. amid the continuing backlash against vaping, saying in a press release that they’ll no longer be selling any of their “non-tobacco, non-menthol-based flavors,” which were mango, creme, fruit and cucumber.

Prior to the announcement, the fruity flavors were only available to customers over the age of 21 to purchase on the company’s website.

“We must reset the vapor category by earning the trust of society and working cooperatively with regulators, policymakers and stakeholders to combat underage use while providing an alternative to adult smokers,” CEO K.C. Crosthwaite said in a statement at the time.

A spokesperson for Juul, which was founded in May 2015, said in a statement to NBC News on Wednesday of the new suit, “While we have not yet reviewed the complaint, we remain focused on … earning the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials … to combat underage use.”

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