JUUL Labs Chief Executive Officer K.C. Crosthwaite listens during a meeting with President Donald Trump in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, on youth vaping and the electronic cigarette epidemic.
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JUUL Labs Chief Executive Officer K.C. Crosthwaite listens during a meeting with President Donald Trump in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, on youth vaping and the electronic cigarette epidemic.

Jay Patel of Duluth believed vaping was safe when he tried it in 2015. Instead, he wound up comatose in Gwinnett Medical Center with severe lung disease.

With Patel's personal injury lawsuit, Georgia joined 39 states investigating whether Juul Labs, the nation’s largest electronic cigarette company, promoted and sold its nicotine-heavy products as safe when the company should have known otherwise.

AG Carr: Georgia To Join 39 State Coalition To Investigate JUUL's Impact On Youth Vaping

The Turnbull Law Firm, P.C. and TorHoerman Law, LLC firms filed Georgia’s first lawsuit against the vaping giant, claiming Juul’s electronic cigarettes caused a 38-year-old former athlete to sustain permanent lung injuries and require lifelong medical treatment.

Lead Attorney Jacob Plattenberger told GPB News the facts of Patel's case are straightforward.

"He was an elite-level athlete for most of his life, played international soccer and was a marathoner and was overall in great health," Plattenberger said. "(Patel) started vaping and vaped for a little under two years and then crashed one day and went into Gwinnett County Medical Center and wound up on a ventilator in the ICU in a coma for two weeks with EVALI."

Juul Labs sought to court Georgia AGs as teen vaping surged

A team of Juul representatives met with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and his senior staff last year. They delivered a 17-page presentation laden with information about the public health potential of Juul’s combustion-free vaping devices for adult smokers and the company’s “commitment to ending youth use,” a pledge that included more rigorous retail and online sales controls, the Associated Press reported in March. 

Despite Carr's visit with representatives from Juul, the attorney general did not chose to change any laws in the manufacturer's favor.

Carr previously told GPB News the issue of vaping is one that affects him personally as a father.

“I'm the parent of a teenager. And there's not a time I go to school and I don't get asked what we're doing about vaping,” he said. “You know, basically, it's reached epidemic proportions.

The Associated Press uncovered the influence campaign by reviewing Juul’s political donations and obtaining internal emails, meeting minutes and company records through open records requests to more than a dozen state attorneys general offices.

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EVALI cases in Georgia

EVALI, the lung disease named for the severe lung illnesses associated with vaping, killed six Georgians, the Georgia Department of Public Health said last fall. More than half (62%) of the state's 42 cases occurred in men.

The first Georgia death occurred in September 2019 and was a man with a history of heavy nicotine vaping. But DPH said he had no reported history of vaping THC, as most other patients reported.

All of the patients, whose ages range from 18 to 68, were hospitalized and developed pneumonia with no known infectious cause. Other symptoms of the vaping-associated illness named EVALI include cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Nationwide, at least 68 people died and more than 2,800 have been hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As many as 15% of the patients are under the age of 18, which is the age to legally use e-cigarette and vaping products.

Teen use of vape products

Teen use of e-cigarettes has skyrocketed more than 70% since Juul’s launch in 2015, leading the Food and Drug Administration to declare an epidemic of underage vaping among teenagers. More than 1 in 4 high schoolers now reports vaping and Juul is the top brand, preferred by 60% of students, according to the latest government data.

“Juul really created this crisis,” said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner. “Juul created the pool of nicotine-addicted teens and I think they popularized the idea of vaping among kids.”

The FDA in January issued a policy prioritizing enforcement against certain unauthorized flavored e-cigarette products that appeal to kids, including fruit and mint flavors.

Personal injury lawsuit filed in Georgia

Patel's injury is permanent.

Not only does the 38-year-old Duluth man have extensive medical bills from a two-week stay in intensive care, Patel will also need care and treatment for the rest of his life, Plattenberger said.

"He's also suffered non-economic damages: pain and suffering, loss of normal life," Plattenberger said. "He's a young guy with young kids, and used to lead a very active lifestyle."

The company marketed its product as a safe alternative to cigarettes and failed to say what the chemicals — known to be harmful by inhalation in humans — inside vape smoke could do. But Patel fell for marketing alone and wasn't trying to switch from traditional cigarettes to an alternative, his attorney said.

"Juul aggressively marketed this product," Plattenberger said. "They didn't disclose what was in it."

In this July 25, 2019, file photo, Juul Labs co-founder and Chief Product Officer James Monsees testifies before a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, during a hearing on the youth nicotine epidemic. Vaping giant Juul Labs has donated thousands of dollars to court state attorneys general. But the lobbying strategy may be backfiring.
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In this July 25, 2019, file photo, Juul Labs co-founder and Chief Product Officer James Monsees testifies before a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, during a hearing on the youth nicotine epidemic. Vaping giant Juul Labs has donated thousands of dollars to court state attorneys general. But the lobbying strategy may be backfiring.
Polly Hergenreder, right, and her son Adam, center attend a news conference where their attorney Antonio Romanucci, announced the filing of a civil lawsuit against e-cigarette maker Juul on Hergenreder's behalf Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, in Chicago.
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Polly Hergenreder, right, and her son Adam, center attend a news conference where their attorney Antonio Romanucci, announced the filing of a civil lawsuit against e-cigarette maker Juul on Hergenreder's behalf Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, in Chicago.