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Juul products are displayed at a smoke shop in New York on Dec. 20, 2018. After a crackdown by the Food and Drug Administration in 2018, Juul discontinued flavors that were seen as marketed to teens. (Seth Wenig, The Associated Press)

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said Tuesday he has filed a lawsuit against Juul that alleges the vaping company marketed its products to kids and downplayed their health risks.

Weiser is also accusing Juul of falsely suggesting its vaping products are a healthy smoking alternative and can help people quit using cigarettes. 

Weiser’s office has been investigating Juul for nearly a year and the lawsuit, filed in Denver District Court, argues that the company violated the Colorado Consumer Protection Act.

“Addiction to e-cigarettes poses major health risks to Colorado youth,” Weiser said in a written statement. “Juul must be held accountable for its reckless, deceptive and unconscionable marketing.”

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser speaks to reporters on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, about a report on priest abuse in Colorado. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Weiser’s legal action comes after a study showed that in 2018 Colorado had the nation’s highest youth vaping rate. State lawmakers have taken a number of steps to try to curb teen use, including banning indoor vaping and enacting more stringent regulations around the sale of tobacco products.

Additionally, voters will decide in November whether to tax vaping products in Colorado for the first time. 

Juul has been facing national scrutiny over the past year or so. Other states have launched similar investigations into the company following the explosion in the use of its products. 

Weiser’s office partnered with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Adams 12 Five Star Schools district on the investigation into Juul.

The 112-page lawsuit alleges that Juul developed its products, which resemble a USB flash drive, to make them more attractive and easily accessible to youth and more difficult for parents and teachers to identify. 

The attorney general’s office also claims that Juul made youth-friendly vaping flavors — like fruit medley and cool mint — despite warnings from public health and government officials that they could lead to use by teens.

The lawsuit alleges that one of the ways teens were able to obtain Juul devices was by emailing the company a product serial number to claim they received a defective product. Juul would send new devices to the person without requiring that they send the “broken” one back.

“A buyer could create an unlimited number of accounts using different email addresses but using the same age-verification information. This
allowed youth to obtain numerous ‘replacement’ devices from multiple accounts, and then share them or sell to other youth,” the lawsuit said. “Though Juul lost money on these warranty replacements, they made money on the sale of pods for use in these devices. Juul, therefore, had little incentive to close this loophole.”

Wesier’s office says Colorado’s education system has been affected by the boom in vaping. The lawsuit says “no Colorado school has escaped the scourge” and that teachers and administrators have struggled to address vaping on campuses.

“Juul created the youth vaping epidemic in Colorado and throughout the country,” the lawsuit says.

Finally, the state is alleging that Juul failed to disclose in social media advertising and in other promotions that its products contain nicotine, and that it paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Quit Media, LLC, a search engine optimization consultant that operated a fake smoking cessation website under the name “Quit Smoking Community.”

MORE: Read the lawsuit.

The company has said it has worked to combat teen use and that its vaping devices are not meant to be cessation products, but are rather just another way to consume nicotine. 

“We will continue to reset the vapor category in the U.S. and seek to earn the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, legislators, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and transition adult smokers from combustible cigarettes,” Juul spokesman Austin Finan said in a written statement on Tursday. “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 products other than tobacco and menthol in November of last year, halted our television, print and digital product advertising and support the (Trump) administration’s final flavor policy. Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers. We will respond to the allegations in the complaint through the appropriate legal channels.”

Juul is owned in part by Altria Group, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes. Altria’s stock has tanked in part because of litigation against Juul.

The lawsuit seeks to recover money for damage caused to Colorado and its citizens. It also calls for a halt to the company’s allegedly unlawful and deceptive trade practices. 

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....