Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Lawsuit Against Juul/Altria Alleging Fraudulent Misinformation Provides Fraudulent Misinformation

Parents of a Florida teenager who became addicted to Juul have sued Juul, Altria, and Philip Morris USA based on a number of claims, including fraud, negligence, and violation of the RICO statute (the compliant is here). Dr. Stan Glantz and Lauren Lempert provide a nice summary of the reasoning behind the lawsuit and the specific claims being made. The case was filed on Monday in the federal district court for the middle district of Florida.

The Rest of the Story

Although the main complaint is that the company fraudulently provided misinformation about the product, its health risks, and its addictiveness, the complaint itself provides a huge amount of misinformation and distortion of the scientific facts related to vaping and Juul. Here is a sampling of the false or completely unsupported information that is claimed in the complaint:

1. Vaping causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): The lawsuit claims that "just like traditional cigarette smoke," vaping causes COPD because it "introduces foreign substances into the lung." There is absolutely no evidence to support this claim. Despite at least 12 years of use and prolonged vaping by millions of Americans, I'm not aware of a single case of COPD that has been documented to be caused by vaping. While vaping does cause acute respiratory irritation, there is no evidence at this point that prolonged exposure to e-cigarette aerosol is extensive enough to cause permanent lung obstruction.

2. Nicotine is a carcinogen: The lawsuit claims that "nicotine itself is a carcinogen." The leading, objective, international body that studies carcinogens (the International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC]) has not declared nicotine to be a carcinogen.

3. Juul delivers carcinogens to users: The lawsuit claims that Juul "delivers toxins and carcinogens to users." However, the complaint does not specify exactly what toxins or carcinogens Juul delivers to users. Studies of the aerosol produced by Juuling, to the best of my knowledge, have not demonstrated the presence of detectable levels of carcinogens.

4. Juul is designed to transition users to cigarette smoking: The lawsuit claims that Juul is designed to make it "easier for e-cigarette users to transition to conventional cigarettes." The truth is the exact opposite. Juul was designed specifically to transition conventional cigarette smokers to vaping. Juul Labs would be stupid if they designed the product such that its users would transition back to smoking. The company makes no money if its users go back to smoking. In fact, the economic incentive for Juul is to eliminate smoking altogether. The more smokers who switch from conventional cigarettes to Juul, the more money the company makes. There is abundant evidence that Juul has succeeded in transitioning hundreds of thousands of smokers away from conventional cigarette use, but no evidence that Juul has transitioned anyone to cigarette smoking.

5. Juul is defectively designed: The lawsuit claims that the Juul e-cigarette is "defectively designed" because it delivers nicotine so effectively. The truth is that this is actually an incredibly effective design because it provides the greatest chance that a smoker will successfully quit smoking by switching to vaping. The problem with most other e-cigarettes is precisely that they do not deliver nicotine effectively. Juul corrected this problem and as a result, it has become the most effective smoking cessation product currently on the market. This is demonstrated by the tremendous market share that Juul holds among adult smokers trying to quit.

6. Juul aggravates nicotine addiction in cigarette smokers: The lawsuit claims that the company knew that Juul "posed a risk of aggravating nicotine addiction in those already addicted to cigarettes." There is no evidence to support this claim and the truth is likely the opposite. While smokers who switch to Juul are obviously still addicted to nicotine, they are no longer addicted to smoking. The behavior of smoking is a huge component of the addiction to nicotine that is observed in cigarette smokers. By eliminating that aspect of the addiction, the overall addiction is almost certainly lessened.

7. Juul fails to inform users that its product has not been found to be safe: The lawsuit claims that the company "fails to inform users that its products have not been found to be safe." The truth is that Juul says right on its web site that: "No tobacco-based or nicotine e-liquid product should be considered safe." In addition, Juul informs customers that: "Inhalation of e-vapor from JUUL may aggravate pre-existing respiratory or heart conditions. Additionally, ingestion of nicotine, at any level, may cause other conditions (such as an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure, may cause dizziness, nausea, and stomach pain)." The company also warns users about ingesting the e-liquid, informing them that the product: "Contains nicotine, which is an addictive chemical and can be poisonous. Avoid contact with skin and eyes. Do not drink."

8. Juul falsely claimed that it is not affiliated with Big Tobacco: It is true that Juul claimed that it had no affiliation with Big Tobacco. But that was prior to its partial acquisition by Altria. You can hardly blame the company for making a true statement, as long as they no longer make that claim. A Google search revealed that, ironically, the only current internet source of the claim that "Juul Labs is not Big Tobacco" is the lawsuit itself.

9. Juul and Altria plan to use Juul as an entry point for youth to start smoking Marlboro cigarettes: Not only is there no evidence to back up this claim, but it is patently ridiculous. You don't get kids addicted to Marlboro by marketing Juul. You get kids addicted to Juul by marketing Juul. Data from the PATH study demonstrate that becoming a regular vaper is a path away from smoking, not towards smoking. In fact, the only kids who currently progress to smoking are those who do not become regular vapers. Why would a company think that by addicting kids to a mango-flavored product, they would suddenly develop a desire for the harsh taste of Marlboro? Altria may have a history of being sinister, but they are not stupid.

None of this is to deny the fact that Juul use among youth has become a serious public health problem that needs to be addressed urgently. None of this is to deny that Juul carries some responsibility for having created the problem. However, it doesn't seem fair to file a lawsuit against the company for making false claims by putting false claims into the complaint.

Ultimately, I go far beyond nearly all of my colleagues in public health because I believe that the use of nicotine salts is simply not a viable long-term option for a harm reduction strategy that is based on trying to get smokers to switch to vaping. Nevertheless, I don't think it is appropriate to sue the company based on alleged facts that are either completely undocumented or simply untrue.

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