CHICAGO — Last week, as Adam Hergenreder huddled under a blanket in his hospital bed, recovering from a lung illness brought on by vaping, he offered a warning for his peers: Vaping “will mess up your lungs.”
Today, in the offices of a downtown Chicago law firm, Hergenreder and his family are announcing that they’ve taken their message one step further, filing a lawsuit in Lake County against Juul Labs Inc. and a Waukegan gas station where Adam bought vaping products.
The 82-page complaint, filed Friday by attorney Antonio Romanucci, follows one brought by Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim on behalf of county residents, alleging that Juul has used false marketing claims to create a public health crisis. The Hergenreder lawsuit makes similar allegations, asserting that Hergenreder fell victim to false marketing efforts that were specifically engineered to target teens.
“Juul has turned a generation of adolescents into addicts and recklessly put the health and safety of young men and women like Adam in jeopardy,” Romanucci said, “inflicting illnesses upon them that medical personnel and public health authorities have yet to understand the causes of or the long-term impacts of.”
And though the extent of damage to Hergenreder’s lungs may remain unclear for years, Romanucci says that one thing is certain: “Juul should be held responsible for deliberately targeting him and millions of other American teens with wildly irresponsible claims that its products are safe.”
In its announcement of the lawsuit, Romanucci’s firm noted statistics that show a rapid increase in e-cigarette use over the past three years: CDC data shows that from 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette (or vaping) product use had increased from 11.7% to 20.8% among high school students and from 3.3% to 4.9% of middle school students — an increase of 1.5 million more youth users of e-cigarettes in just one year.
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That rapid rise, the lawsuit alleges, is due to the company’s marketing, which touted Juul as a safer alternative to smoking, and positioned it as catnip to teens, using young models and creating flavors that made highly addictive nicotine sound like candy.
According to the lawsuit, Hergenreder, who began vaping at age 16, bought Juul products at The Gas Stop convenience store in Waukegan — which sports a “Cigarette Drive-Thru” and is also named in the lawsuit — without ever being asked for identification, though it is illegal to sell tobacco products to those under 18.
When he started, the lawsuit says, Adam did not know that Juul contained nicotine. At one point, he was using up to 1.5 pods of nicotine vaping liquid per day, and he told the Chicago Tribune that he also had been vaping THC.
Hergenreder’s claim and others like it mark a return to the language of 1990s lawsuits against big tobacco companies, which resulted in a huge nationwide settlement that requires the major tobacco companies to pay substantial settlements to U.S. states each year to offset the public health crisis brought on by smoking.
The recent rise of a vaping-related lung illness, which the Illinois Department of Health says has affected 52 people statewide and is responsible for one death in the state so far, adds an additional, urgent tone to the lawsuits. Though much remains unclear about the illness — including its exact cause — attorneys are seeking compensatory damages for Hergenreder, based in part on his lung injury.