Minnesota Attorney General Opens Trial Against Juul Labs

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is suing Juul Labs for unlawfully targeting young people with its e-cigarette products. Altria, the tobacco industry giant, is also a co-defendant.

Juul Labs trial

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has initiated the first-ever trial against Juul Labs, accusing the e-cigarette giant of unlawfully targeting young people with its products to get a new generation addicted to nicotine. The lawsuit was filed in 2019, and Ellison has refused to disclose the amount of money the state is seeking in damages and civil penalties. However, it could be in the ballpark with Minnesota’s landmark $7.1 billion settlement with the tobacco industry in 1998. Altria, the tobacco industry giant that formerly owned a minority stake in Juul, has been added as a co-defendant in the case.

The trial, expected to last three weeks, will take place before Hennepin County District Judge Laurie Miller. The lawsuit alleges consumer fraud, creating a public nuisance, unjust enrichment, and conspiracy. The state argues that Juul and Altria preyed on Minnesota’s children, focusing on attracting “cool kids,” creating a nicotine buzz, and using social media and celebrities to act as “pushers” of its addictive products. The defendants argue their conduct was aimed at helping “aging smokers” to stop smoking, but the state claims it’s a smoke screen.

Altria, meanwhile, is downplaying its role in the case, stating that it bought a 35% stake in Juul Labs in 2018 after its own vaping products failed to gain traction, and only after Juul assured Altria “and announced to the world” that it had made “meaningful changes” to its marketing practices. The Richmond, Virginia-based tobacco giant said the services it provided to Juul, such as supplying strategic counter space in stores and distributing a Juul ad and coupons to adult smokers, lasted just over a year and ended in March 2020. Altria maintains that its support did not appreciably increase sales of Juul products in Minnesota nor the use of e-cigarettes by minors in the state.

Juul, which launched in 2015, became the U.S. vaping market leader on the popularity of flavors like mango, mint, and creme brulee. Its rise was fueled by its use among teenagers, some of whom became hooked on Juul’s high-nicotine pods. Amid the backlash, Juul dropped all U.S. advertising and discontinued most of its flavors in 2019. Juul has since lost popularity with teens, and its share of the multibillion-dollar market has fallen to about 33% from a high of 75%. Several states, including New York, California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Alaska, Illinois, and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia, still have litigation pending against Juul.