Park Ridge teen sues Juul, Philip Morris for nicotine addiction

A Park Ridge teenager who says he became addicted to nicotine through vaping filed a class-action lawsuit Monday against leading e-cigarette maker Juul Labs and tobacco industry giant Philip Morris USA.

Christian Foss, 19, alleges the companies, along with Phillip Morris parent Altria Group, illegally marketed vaping products and devices to minors without informing them about the risks, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

It's the second suit filed by suburban plaintiffs against San Francisco-based Juul Labs within a week. Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim sued last week, contending the company intentionally targeted teens with a deceptive marketing campaign.

“What we want out of this lawsuit is education and information, and we want regulation to prevent them from targeting youth,” Foss attorney Ken Moll said Tuesday. “We want regulation for smoke shops to prevent selling (e-cigarettes) to kids.”

The suit also seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Foss declined to comment through his lawyer.

Juul Labs spokesman Ted Kwong said the lawsuit is “without merit. Juul products are intended as a viable alternative for current adult smokers worldwide, he said.

“We have never marketed to youth and do not want any non-nicotine users to try our products,” Kwong said. “Last year, we launched an aggressive action plan to combat underage use as it is antithetical to our mission. This suit simply copies and pastes allegations previously raised in Florida, which we are actively contesting.”

Foss, who is now in college, began using and purchasing Juul vaping products at 16, his lawsuit states. The suit says he was unaware they contained more nicotine than cigarettes when he first began “JUULing.” He was attracted to products that came in mango, cucumber and mint flavors.

Aside from nicotine addiction, he also suffers from exasperated asthma, a known complication of nicotine ingestion, according to the lawsuit.

“Mimicking Big Tobacco's past marketing practices, defendants prey on youth for financial gain,” the lawsuit alleges. “And now that Philip Morris, seller of Marlboro, the country's most popular cigarette especially among youth, partnered with Juul, the country's lead e-cigarette seller, progress in nicotine cessation stands to erode.”

The lawsuit contends the defendants violated federal anti-racketeering laws through “fraudulent and deceptive youth marketing business practices.”

Kwong said the company has taken numerous steps to discourage underage use, including advocating for Tobacco 21 laws, halting the sale of non-tobacco and non-menthol based flavored JUULpods to traditional retail stores, enhancing its online age-verification process and conducting more than 2,000 secret shopper visits monthly to strengthen retailer compliance. The company also shut down its Facebook and Instagram accounts while working to “remove inappropriate social media content generated by others on those platforms,” he said.

However, Moll said 25% of Juul's Twitter followers are underage.

“This is a gateway drug,” he said of e-cigarettes getting youth hooked on nicotine.

There's growing consensus among health authorities that youth e-cigarette use is an epidemic, and dozens of adolescents have been hospitalized in recent weeks with severe respiratory problems after vaping either nicotine or marijuana. State and federal authorities are investigating 94 suspected cases of severe lung illnesses linked to vaping and e-cigarettes since late June and the Food and Drug Administration is studying links between seizures and e-cigarettes.

Moll said his firm is investigating nearly 10 more potential cases in the suburbs that could become part of the class action, as well as other claims nationwide.

Juul has filed a petition to consolidate all such cases before a federal judge in the Northern District of California. That petition will be heard by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation on Sept. 26 in Los Angeles.

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