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Leading e-cigarette-maker Juul knowingly sold a large amount of contaminated mint-flavored e-liquid, endangering public health in the name of profits, according to a lawsuit brought by Siddharth Breja, the company’s former senior vice president of global finance.
Breja filed the lawsuit Tuesday, October 29 in the US District Court for the Northern District of California.
Breja began working at the company in May of 2018 but alleges he was abruptly fired in March of 2019 after voicing concern that the company refused to issue a recall over the contaminated products or warn customers about the potential risk. Breja is suing Juul for retaliation for whistleblowing, wrongful termination, and other violations.
Overall, Breja’s complaint paints a dark picture of the company, which owns a lion’s share of the e-cigarette market in the US. The former executive claims that Juul’s senior management was motivated purely by profits and made many efforts to deceive regulators and customers, copying the despised tactics of Big Tobacco companies and trying to get customers addicted to their products.
Breja accuses ex-CEO Kevin Burns of managing the company like a dictator, operating in a “win-at-all-costs, reckless fashion,” and fostering a “culture of silence.”
When Breja raised concerns about the company selling expired or soon-to-be expired products, Burns allegedly responded: “Half our customers are drunk and vaping like mo-fo’s, who the fuck is going to notice the quality of our pods.”
Perhaps more concerning, Breja alleges that Juul sold a large amount of contaminated products out of greed. According to Breja, the company struggled to keep up with demand for mint-flavored products after Juul decided to pull other flavors from its retail stores late last year. The move was meant to dodge further public backlash for the rise in teen vaping, but it resulted in supply issues that threatened profits.
“You need to have an IQ of 5 to know that when customers don’t find mango they buy mint,” Burns allegedly said while berating Juul’s supply-chain team and its suppliers for the shortages.
In March of 2019, Breja learned that some batches of Mint eLiquid had been found to be contaminated. By that time, approximately 250,000 “Mint Refill Kits” containing the contaminated liquids had already been shipped to retailers and were being sold to customers. The contaminated kits were equivalent to one million pods, the lawsuit notes.
The lawsuit does not indicate what the contaminate might be. But Breja’s suit notes that the contamination issue arose “in the wake of consumers recently having reported suffering seizures due to the use of Juul’s products.”
In an emailed statement to Ars, a Juul spokesperson responded:
Mr. Breja’s claims are baseless. He was terminated in March 2019 because he failed to demonstrate the leadership qualities needed in his role. The allegations concerning safety issues with Juul products are equally meritless, and we already investigated the underlying manufacturing issue and determined the product met all applicable specifications. The company will vigorously defend this lawsuit.
Breja’s claims come at a critical time for Juul. The company is facing intense criticism for helping to light up an epidemic of youth vaping, particularly after revelations this summer that Juul directly pitched its products to teens while they were in school.
Moreover, the country is dealing with a rash of unexplained lung injuries that have been linked to vaping. Federal and state health investigators have not been able to determine what vaping products or contaminants could be causing the illnesses, but most cases have involved black-market products containing THC (the psychoactive component of cannabis)—not nicotine products or Juul products, specifically.
As of October 22, 2019, there have been 1,604 reported cases of vaping-related injuries in 49 states, including 34 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kevin Burns stepped down as Juul’s CEO in September. He was replaced by K. C. Crosthwaite, the former chief growth officer at Altria Group Inc., formerly Philip Morris Companies, Inc., before the appointment. On Tuesday, the company confirmed plans to lay off 500 employees by the end of the year as part of a “necessary reset.”