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According to allegations raised in a recently filed whistleblower lawsuit, JUUL Labs knowingly sold at least one million expired and potentially contaminated vaping pods to its customers according to a former executive, who paints a portrait of a callous upper management which made fun of its nicotine-addicted customer base.
The complaint (PDF) was filed by Siddharth Breja, former JUUL Senior vice president of finance, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on October 29.
Breja says the company refused to issue a JUUL recall for the contaminated pods, over his objections, and eventually fired him for raising too many safety concerns.
“In total disregard for the law, public safety, and public health, JUUL has sent to market, at a minimum, approximately one million mint-flavored e-cigarette nicotine pods that it admits were contaminated, and against Mr. Breja’s insistence and protests, refused to recall those contaminated pods or even issue a product health and safety warning,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Breja brings this action after he was terminated in retaliation for whistleblowing and objecting to the contaminated pod shipment and other illegal and unsafe conduct that has jeopardized and continues to jeopardize public health and safety and the lives of millions of consumers, many of them children and teens.”
Breja is a former Uber executive, and began working at JUUL in late May 2018. He was fired in March 2019, just two days after he was commended for his outstanding performance in his annual review, according to the whistleblower lawsuit.
The reasoning for his firing, the lawsuit indicates, was because he raised concerns about JUUL shipping expired and nearly expired JUUL pods to consumers in February 2019, and outright contaminated pods in March.
The expired pods were nearly one year old after being returned from a distributor, which is at the point of their expiration. Breja suggested the use of expiration dates on future JUUL pod products, for which he, and JUUL customers, were ridiculed by then-CEO Kevin Burns.
“Half our customers are drunk and vaping like mo-fo’s, who the f— is going to notice the quality of our pods,” Burns said at the meeting, according to the lawsuit.
Burns stepped down as CEO of JUUL Labs, Inc. in September.
In March, just before his firing, Breja became aware of a batch of 250,000 “Mint Refill Kits” which had contained contaminated eLiquid. Each kit contained four pods, for a total of one million contaminated pods. Breja indicates in the lawsuit that he was particularly concerned that the pods had been already shipped and sold to retailers due to ongoing reports of seizures potentially linked to JUUL pods.
According to the lawsuit, not only did JUUL not recall the pods, but it charged Breja with recovering $7 million from the supplier, Alternative Ingredients, Inc. for supplying the contaminated ingredients, which Breja found to be hypocritical.
“That same day, during his regular weekly meeting with his supervisor…Mr. Breja protested JUUL’s refusal to issue a product recall for the contaminated pods, or at a minimum, issue a public health and safety notice to consumers,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Breja believed that not doing so was not only illegal and an ethical violation, but also exposed the Company and its investors to a very high risk.”
His supervisor rejected the idea of recalling the pods, indicating it would cause financial harm to the company and executives compensated in JUUL stock, the lawsuit indicates. Breja continued to push for the recall and warned the company was putting itself at legal risk, resulting in his firing, he claims.
A report by Buzzfeed News indicates JUUL officials acknowledge there was a manufacturing issue as Breja claims, but said the company was sure the pods were safe. Company officials rejected all of Breja’s other allegations.
The complaint comes in addition to dozens of JUUL addiction lawsuits and class action lawsuits filed against the company in recent weeks, each raising allegations that the e-cigarette manufacturer marketed their products toward minors and prior non-smokers, while failing to warn that JUUL pods are more potent and addictive than traditional cigarettes.
As more parents and young adults step forward to pursue claims after becoming addicted to JUUL, it is widely expected that thousands of cases will be presented throughout the federal court system.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation issued an order consolidating all JUUL cases pending throughout the federal court system before Judge William H. Orrick III, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, which is where JUUL Labs, Inc.’s San Francisco headquarters are located.
JUUL Health Concerns
Recent FDA data indicates teen e-cigarette use has reached epidemic levels in the United States, and JUUL Labs has been accused of fueling the growing teen nicotine addiction problems in the United States, through the design and marketing of their vape pen.
JUUL was intentionally designed to look like a USB thumb drive, which has made the product popular among teems who are able to hide their vaping habit from parents, teachers and other adults.
The manufacturer also marketed and sold JUUL in various candy-like flavors, which has resulted in a large number of teens and prior non-smokers starting to vape, and developing addictions to the high levels of nicotine contained in the pods.
A recent study indicated that e-cigarette advertising reaches 80% of middle and high school students in the U.S. Another study warns that vaping during adolescence quadruples a teen’s risk of becoming a cigarette tobacco smoker later.
On September 9, the FDA issued a warning letter to JUUL, indicating there was evidence it told school-aged children that its products were safer than cigarettes, which has not been proven.
Later that month Burns stepped down after it was announced JUUL was the target of a criminal investigation, and the company ceased all advertising in the U.S. Earlier this month, the company ceased marketing of its non-traditional flavored products, except tobacco, menthol and mint.
Breja indicates in his lawsuit that the move is cynical, as Burns has stated in meetings that the company expects anyone using its fruit or candy flavors to switch to mint.