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'They created an epidemic': Why 2 lawyers are going after e-cigarette giant Juul

Juul brand vape cartridges are pictured for sale at a shop in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., September 26, 2019. Picture taken September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Juul brand vape cartridges are pictured for sale at a shop in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., September 26, 2019. Picture taken September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

The suggestion that only black market vape products are connected to vape-related deaths and illness is entirely inaccurate, if you ask two lawyers representing the mother of 18-year-old David Wakefield who suffered from asthma and died while fighting a two-year addiction to Juul Labs Inc.'s nicotine e-cigarettes.

Angela Nehmens and Mahzad Kazempour Hite filed what they say they believe is the first wrongful death lawsuit against e-cigarette giant, Juul Labs. The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal district court for the Northern District of California, was brought by Wakefield’s mother, Lisa Vail, on behalf of her son’s estate.

“He continued using Juul and he passed away in the middle of the night,” Nehmens told Yahoo Finance. “His mom has described it to me as someone who came in the middle of the night and stole her son, because otherwise a healthy, active 18-year-old boy doesn't die out of nowhere. And we know that there are studies that demonstrate that Juul can cause asthma or exacerbate existing asthma.”

‘It’s not just asthma’

Vail alleges that Juul caused her son’s death by regularly inundating him with Juul advertisements and marketing materials that led him to believe the company’s e-cigarettes were safe and did not pose any health risks. Nehmens said Wakefiled was not exhibiting any signs of asthma the day he died, and that his history of asthma was minor. An autopsy is underway. Wakefield’s death certificate currently lists asthma as the cause of death.

Juul can expect additional claims from plaintiffs who exclusively used its products.

“It’s not just asthma,” Nehmens said. “We have other clients who began using Juul when they were minors, who have been intubated. We have one woman who was hospitalized for 30 days after using Juul for three months. She was an exclusive Juul user, and so was Daniel.”

Hite calls into question vape pen ingredients like propylene glycol, a synthetic liquid substance known as safe to ingest, and converts into the toxin formaldehyde when heated to a certain temperature.

“These are things that should have been studied by Juul,” Hite said.

Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center toxicologist and associate professor of oncology, Maciej Goniewicz, told Yahoo Finance in September that formaldehyde is also present in some cigarette tobacco smoke. He raised concerns over solvents used to extract nicotine, and possibly THC.

“Actually it’s the heating of the nicotine solvent, not the nicotine itself, but propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin — those are the solvents for nicotine — and this is what creates this vapor effect. And these two chemicals if they are overheated, if temperatures go too high, then they decompose. And once they decompose, they create some of the toxic chemicals, and one of those toxic chemicals is formaldehyde.”

‘We are getting calls nearly every day’

The lawyers say media reports and warnings from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concerning dangers associated with vaping have increased awareness and the number of allegedly injured parties seeking legal advice.

“We have upwards of 100 clients and we are getting calls nearly every day,” Nehmens said. “We know that these injuries are being seen in exclusively Juul users. They are not cigarette smokers, they're not using the vape pens for THC oil or anything like that.”

As of October 8, the CDC confirmed 26 deaths associated with the use of e-cigarettes, or vaping, and 1,299 lung injury cases.

Hite said that before 2018 when Juul was required by federal regulators to change its marketing materials and disclosures of potential harm, it had no warning and focused its marketing conversation on Juul as a safer alternative to cigarette smoke. Those types of statements, she said, made their way into Wakefield’s Gmail inbox.

“There’s no actual scientific support for the statement,” that Juul is a safer alternative to cigarette smoking, she said.

“They created an epidemic of young users, most of who did not actually know that they were inhaling a product that even contained nicotine, so they couldn't appreciate the risk.”

The multi-count complaint seeks compensatory and punitive damages, plus an injunction that would prohibit acts by Juul that the court may conclude threaten injury to members of the public. Vail says Juul is responsible for product design defects, negligence, failure to warn of e-cigarette risks, failure to recall the products, fraudulent concealment of risks, and violations of the Unfair Competition Law Act.

Juul did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Alexis Keenan is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. She previously produced and reported for CNN and is a former litigation attorney. Follow on Twitter @alexiskweed.

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