Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison gave the opening statement Tuesday in the state's lawsuit against Juul Labs, saying youth smoking was nearly snuffed out in the state before the e-cigarette manufacturer lured teens with fruity flavors, fun ads and sleek, colorful designs.
And he portrayed the suit as a continuation of Minnesota's landmark $6.5 billion settlement with Big Tobacco more than two decades ago.
Juul and co-defendant Altria Group, Ellison said, "baited, deceived and addicted a whole new generation of kids after Minnesotans slashed youth smoking rates down to the lowest level in a generation. Big Tobacco is back with a new name — but the same game."
His statement drew the first of several objections from William Geraghty, the attorney for Altria Group, the Richmond, Va., tobacco company formerly known as Philip Morris. Hennepin County District Judge Laurie Miller overruled that objection in the packed courtroom, where lawyers outnumbered jurors by about 3-1.
The state is seeking more than $100 million in damages from San Francisco-based Juul and Altria in the suit, filed against Juul in 2019. Altria was added as a defendant in 2020 because it had bought a $12.8 billion minority share in Juul in December 2018.
In their openings for the state, Ellison and attorney Tara Sutton claimed that Altria boosted Juul sales through its marketing muscle as manufacturer of the popular Marlboro cigarettes.
Geraghty and Juul's attorney, David Bernick, denied that the companies marketed their products to kids and asserted that vaping among youth took off in Minnesota starting in 2011, long before Juul entered the market in 2015.
The state alleges "the most virulent accusations of wrongdoing" in claiming the manufacturer marketed to kids, Bernick said, adding, "We are defending vigorously against that claim and we are denying it."
Bernick and Geraghty both said e-cigarettes were created with the aim of helping adult smokers transition from traditional cigarettes, which are more harmful than vaping. Adults liked the Juul e-cigarettes and kids would get them through "leakage," meaning from adults or friends, not by purchasing them at stores, Bernick said.
A big issue to be discussed is a marketing campaign called "Vaporize" that featured colorful ads and social media campaigns.
Bernick said the campaign and Juul e-cigarettes targeted adults ages 25 to 34. But "you can't make them not appeal to kids without making them bulky and unattractive to adults," he said. "There's always going to be spillover."
Minnesota is the first state to take Juul and Altria to trial; 39 other states settled their cases. The trial is expected to last three weeks, but a settlement is always possible. Ellison has said the defendants didn't make an acceptable settlement offer during pretrial negotiations.
The opening statements came Tuesday afternoon after a jury of four men and eight women was empaneled. The first witness is expected to take the stand Wednesday.
Following Ellison with a longer opening for the state was Sutton, who helped lead the state's 1998 tobacco case that resulted in a settlement after a four-month trial. She described how youth vaping declined until Juul entered and overtook the market with a product designed to look like a colorful USB device — one that could be easily hidden from parents and teachers in a palm and that was packaged like an iPhone.
Initially, Juul used dessert-like flavors such as fruit medley, mango, cream and mint. Sutton said Juul also used a new method of nicotine delivery that made their e-cigarettes more addictive and inhaling more pleasant.
Juul's e-cigarettes were sold "virtually everywhere," Sutton said, at 2,000 retailers throughout the state. "Juul sales reached their highest peak in 2019 and that's when Altria was helping them.''
She blamed the vaping industry for erasing 10-plus years of progress in lowering youth tobacco use, saying it amounted to $265 million in lost tobacco control efforts. "These defendants turned their back on Minnesota children," she said.
Bernick challenged most of the state's assertions, including the claim that vaping Juul was a pleasant experience. "It's not smooth. Even smokers who vape with Juul find it harsh," he said.
Juul's strength, Bernick said, was in producing something other e-cigarettes had failed to do: a deep lung absorption similar to full-flavored cigarette. He said the sensation helps users of traditional cigarettes transition to vaping.
Bernick said the company's marketing campaign subsequent to "Vaporize" was "Simply Satisfying," aimed at "mature adults."
Juul was a booming company until last year, when it laid off hundreds of workers and settled thousands of lawsuits brought by families of Juul users, school districts, city governments and American Indian tribes.
Geraghty maintained that Altria was a "silent partner" that didn't help with marketing, and profited not from sales of Juul e-cigarettes but from an increase in the company's value that wouldn't occur if it was illegally marketing to kids.
"The goal, ladies and gentlemen, was to get adult smokers to switch, not to get kids to vape," Geraghty said.
In fall 2019, Juul Labs stopped distributing flavored pods. The company also suspended all advertising in the United States and shut down its social media accounts.
Last summer, the federal Food and Drug Administration barred Juul from selling its vaping device along with tobacco- and menthol-flavored cartridges. Juul appealed the decision and the order was stayed by the courts pending that appeal.