State prosecutors in one Illinois county sued Juul Labs, one of the largest e-cigarette makers in the country, on Tuesday accusing it of targeting young people by using deceptive marketing practices to intentionally get them addicted to nicotine.
Michael Nerheim, the state's attorney in Lake County, Illinois, said at a news conference Tuesday that his office was joining with several private Chicago law firms in the lawsuit.
"Companies like Juul Labs are preying on our teens and pre-teens by turning them into addicts," Nerheim said. "Like dope dealers on a street corner, Juul intentionally created addicted teen customers, to get them to continuously come back for life."
One Juul pod, as they're called, contains as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes, according to the Truth Initiative, an anti-tobacco nonprofit.
Vaping among teenagers has surged in recent years. In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 78 percent increase in high school students using electronic cigarettes from 2017 to 2018, and an almost 50 percent increase among middle school students.
The Illinois lawsuit claims Juul used social media to encourage young people to post selfies using the devices.
In a statement to NBC News, Juul Labs said the company has never marketed to youth in this manner, and is no longer using certain social media platforms. "We have exited Instagram and Facebook and work constantly to remove inappropriate social media content generated by others," wrote Ted Kwong, a spokesperson for Juul.
Investigations in other states
In May, one of the country's top tobacco producers — North Carolina — also filed suit against Juul Labs, saying the company used "unfair and deceptive" marketing to get to kids.
In its lawsuit, the state claims Juul is largely responsible for what the surgeon general and the Food and Drug Administration have called a youth e-cigarette epidemic.
"In developing its e-cigarette products, Juul deliberately designed the flavors, the look, and even the chemical composition of the e-cigarettes to appeal to youthful audiences, including minors," the North Carolina lawsuit reads.
Juul pods come in flavors like mint and mango, and look very much like computer flash drives.
The state of Connecticut has also launched investigations into Juul's marketing practices.
“It will take years of education and money to right the wrongs and cover the damages caused by Juul’s marketing campaigns," said Nerheim. "The company should be held accountable for the massive expected cost to undo the damage they created.”
During a hearing in front of the House Oversight and Reform's Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee, a Stanford professor testified that Juul stole the university's renowned tobacco prevention toolkit and used it to get its marketing messages to kids.
Juul Labs denied targeting kids.
"We have never marketed to youth and do not want non-nicotine users, especially youth, to ever try our product," Kwong said in the statement to NBC News.
"Our current marketing efforts feature adult smokers who offer their personal experiences about switching to Juul products," he wrote.
The statement also said that Juul Labs "exists to help adult smokers switch from combustible cigarettes."
The FDA has not approved any e-cigarette — including Juul — as a smoking cessation method.