SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — In the midst of what the American Medical Association (AMA) is calling a public health epidemic, some states, counties and school districts have begun filing lawsuits against vaping giant Juul.
News 3 spoke with two Savannah-based attorneys and a Georgia state representative to explore the legal aspects of the vaping crisis that has swept across the United States — and led to at least three deaths in Georgia — in recent months.
In what areas are people filing vaping-related lawsuits?
Juul litigation has been fitting into three categories, said Mark Tate, trial attorney at personal injury firm Tate Law Group.
- Targeting youth
One of the main issues has been how Juul has marketed its products seemingly toward a younger audience.
“The marketing of these products early on was very much at youthful users with all of the fruity- and bubblegum-flavored cartridges that they have,” Tate told News 3.
“They wanted to do exactly like the tobacco companies did years and years ago and target youthful users because if they hook them when they’re young, they’ll have a user for life,” Tate said.
As a result, the vaping and e-cigarette industry saw a surge in underage users, leading to Juul Labs shutting down their Instagram and Facebook accounts last year.
Then followed the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) restrictions on the sale of flavored vaping products.
Tate said the Altria Group-owned Juul failed to disclose the “extremely high volume of nicotine exposure” resulting from its USB-sized vaping devices.
“It’s not like a cigarette, where you finish your cigarette and you have a feeling of nicotine satisfaction,” Tate said. “The Juul takes a long time to wear out, and you never have the satisfaction of feeling that you’ve completed it because it’s never done.”
Tate added that there’s enough nicotine in one Juul cartridge to fill up an entire pack of cigarettes.
- Vape products malfunctioning
There have been a few recent cases of vaping devices catching fire due to issues with the lithium-ion batteries that power them.
“I’ve seen videos of the vape devices actually exploding in people’s pockets, in their hands, and the most severe case I saw was when one actually exploded in a teenager’s mouth and shattered his jaw,” said Alex Salzillo, managing attorney at Jamie Casino Injury Attorneys.
- Vaping-related lung injuries
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are closely monitoring the rise in cases of e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury, also known as EVALI by the CDC.
“The CDC recently started referring to these cases as not having lung disease, but a severe lung injury, because they actually more resemble chemical burns than, say, a respiratory virus,” Salzillo told News 3.
In the state of Georgia, three vaping-related deaths have been reported by the CDC as of Dec. 16.
Tate says the branch of the vaping litigation that addresses lung injuries is somewhat more difficult and involved.
“[That’s] because the lung injuries are primarily coming from off-the-rack vaping store material, and vaping fluid that may have contaminants, which can cause very deadly lung disease,” Tate said, adding that of these lung injuries, there haven’t been cases directly linked to Juul thus far.
“But certainly, vaping this type of material is not positive for your lung health,” he said.
Is it likely that Georgia will file a vaping-related lawsuit?
Both Tate and Salzillo shared similar sentiments regarding the likelihood that the state of Georgia might take legal action against Juul or impose statewide bans on vaping products.
“I don’t see Georgia filing a lawsuit on a large scale like New York and California, simply because Georgia’s been traditionally a more conservative state,” Salzillo said.
He also said that despite this, he doesn’t think it would be out of the question for Georgia municipalities, counties and even school districts to take individual action.
He suggested taking a glance at opiate litigation as a comparison to the vaping epidemic.
“With opiates, you have mass addiction that’s causing massive costs for all sorts of governmental entities, from municipal to county to the state level,” Salzillo said.
“As the level of vaping in teenagers in particular rises, I think you’re going to see the public health costs rise, as well.”
What are Georgia, South Carolina lawmakers doing about the vaping crisis?
Some state representatives in Georgia and South Carolina hope to make significant changes to vaping legislation in the future.
South Carolina State Rep. Wendell Gilliard announced plans to introduce a vaping ban-focused bill in January 2020.
The bill would make it against the law to “sell, offer to sell, furnish, give, distribute, transport for delivery a vapor product that contains any tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the state of South Carolina.”
A draft of that bill states that those who violate it would be guilty of a misdemeanor.
In Georgia, State. Rep. Bonnie Rich says she intends to focus more on how vaping has impacted minors.
“I’m a mother of teenagers, so I am actually on the ground and see that,” Rich told News 3. “I want to introduce legislation that will make it more difficult for our youth to obtain vape products.”
She noted that a statewide ban is not her goal, as she wants to be careful not to infringe upon the rights of adults to make whatever decisions they want.
“At the same time, [I want to] protect our children, because they don’t really have the authority to discern and make judgment calls the way that an adult would.”
Rich says she wants to introduce legislation that would require retailers to be licensed so that there will be a built-in incentive for them to comply with the laws that restrict purchases by minors.
“Right now, there really isn’t any downside to a retailer — usually it’s a gas station or convenience store — selling vape products to a child,” she said.
“There’s nothing to lose except the sale itself,” said Rich, who also aims to regulate the home delivery of vape products, making it harder for retailers to send vape products to a residence and simply leaving it on the doorstep.
For home wine deliveries, she said, an adult aged 21 or older who has a state-issued form of identification has to sign for it.
“In contrast, the 14-year-old child who lives down the street from me can order vape products online and have them delivered and left on his porch,” Rich said.
What can people do if they’re considering taking legal action for vaping-related lung injuries?
Savannah attorneys say that for those who think their lung injuries may be a result of using vaping products, it’s best to consult with an experienced attorney early in the process.
An essential first step, according to Salzillo, is ensuring all relevant evidence is preserved when making a claim.
“[That includes] the cartridges and the device you were using, and if you have receipts from the places you bought these cartridges or devices,” Salzillo said.
He also said to make sure that the injuries are appropriately documented.
Tate added that it’s still not clear the full long-term ramifications of using vaping products.
“If you go to a pulmonologist and that pulmonologist diagnoses you as having lung injuries from vaping, one of the things that you can still do is file a lawsuit against the companies that make these products,” Tate said.
“And it may be that you need them in order to pay for your long-term healthcare,” he added.