JUUL (copy)

An e-cigarette, USB charger and flavored pods made by Juul Labs Inc. The Massachusetts attorney general is accusing Juul of specifically targeting underage consumers with advertising campaigns on websites favored by young people.

Juul Labs Inc. is being accused by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey of specifically targeting underage consumers with initial website advertising campaigns.

Healey was the first attorney general to initiate an investigation of Juul’s operations, beginning in July 2018,

Healey filed a lawsuit in filed in Suffolk County Superior Court in Boston on Wednesday that accuses the maker of the top-selling U.S. electronic cigarette “of intentionally marketing and selling ... to young people” and initially not marketing that the products contain an addictive component in nicotine.

According to Nielsen convenience store data, Juul held a 57.6% market share as of Dec. 28, 2019, down from 63.9% on the Nov. 30, 2019, report and from 75.8% in December 2018.

The minimum age for buying and consuming tobacco products was 18 until Dec. 20, 2019, when President Donald Trump signed into law a measure raising the minimum age to 21.

Juul could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday about the lawsuit.

Juul is facing numerous state attorneys general’s lawsuits, including in North Carolina. Their common denominator is a claim that Juul’s marketing and sales practices have played a pivotal role in what U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams calls a youth vaping epidemic in recent years.

Healey based her lawsuit on her office’s review of depositions and hundreds of thousands of pages of company documents dating back to Juul’s debut in 2015.

She is requesting that Juul help pay for public-health costs associated with combating the epidemic in Massachusetts.

“Juul is responsible for the millions of young people nationwide who are addicted to e-cigarettes, reversing decades of progress in combating underage tobacco and nicotine use,” Healey said.

The Massachusetts lawsuit claims that when Juul debuted, its marketing was focused on presenting itself as a technology company with a target audience of adult smokers already addicted to nicotine.

It was an approach similar to how R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co. has marketed its No. 2-selling e-cigarette Vuse since 2013.

Healey said Juul soon changed its marketing pitch to focus on “sexually provocative images of young models and celebrities” in most media outlets, including social media platforms used by young people, such as Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.

The lawsuit accuses the company of placing those types of ads on websites “whose primary audiences are underage consumers, some even as young as children in elementary school, such as Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., The Cartoon Network and Seventeen Magazine,” according to a news release from the attorney general’s office.

“Juul also purchased advertisements on a range of other websites designed for kids, including websites to help middle school and high school students develop their mathematics and social studies skills, including coolmath-games.com and socialstudies forkids.com,” the news release said.

Juul is accused of pursuing the assistance of youth influencers that included fashion bloggers, stylists, celebrities and those affiliated with television programs, networks or movies filmed or produced in New York and Los Angeles.

Healey’s complaint also focuses on Juul’s sweet, fruit and candy flavorings that have been the subject of accusations that they target youths. Similar claims have been made by several public-health and anti-tobacco advocacy groups.

In November 2018, Juul stopped selling its creme, cucumber, fruit and mango flavorings at retail outlets but kept them available on its website through the use of age-verification requirements.

In October 2019, Juul said it would end all sales of those non-tobacco and non-menthol flavors.

A month later, it immediately ceased online sales of its mint pod products and halted orders from retailers and wholesalers.

K.C. Crosthwaite, Juul’s chief executive, said at that time the decision was made largely in response to the release of the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey and Monitoring the Future survey that determined U.S. teens who use e-cigarettes prefer Juul’s.

Healey’s lawsuit also alleges that Juul sold products to 850 retail stores in Massachusetts that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had cited for attempting to sell tobacco products to underage teens.

rcraver@wsjournal.com

336-727-7376

@rcraverWSJ

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