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UNC's University Libraries has partnered with the University of California, San Francisco to create an online public depository containing millions of documents concerning a settlement between the state of North Carolina and electronic cigarette brand Juul Labs, according to a Jan. 31 University press release.

The lawsuit was filed in 2019 by N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s office against Juul Labs. Stein’s office held that Juul was largely responsible for the uptick in teenage use of e-cigarettes and sought to hold the company accountable for its marketing tactics.

A fall 2022 survey from the American College Health Association found that 78 percent of college students who reported using tobacco products in the last three months used e-cigarettes or other vape products. 

As a result of the lawsuit, Juul is required to release nearly four million documents pertaining to its marketing and research practices. Nearly 300,000 documents have already been released, and Julie Rudder, head of repository services at UNC’s University Libraries, said the goal is to have all of the documents released by the end of 2025.

The files include data on Juul's sales, advertising practices, research and business models.

“We insisted on a publicly accessible database of Juul’s documents to ensure transparency,” Stein said in a statement. “We want people to understand what Juul did so this never happens again. I’m grateful for the partnership with UNC and UCSF and appreciate their teams’ hard work to bring this document library to life.”

Kurt M. Ribisl, chair of the health behavior department in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, researches tobacco use and has served as an expert witness in multiple state cases against Juul, as well as a large multi-district litigation. 

Ribisl said the online depository will be publicly rolled out in sections of roughly 250,000 documents each month. The material can be viewed by anyone and used for research or instructive purposes. 

“Making these documents free and publicly available, I think, will help us understand how these industries operate and what we can do in terms of regulation to minimize their ability to market to youth and negatively impact their lives,” Ribisl said.

The University Libraries oversees the project and works with UCSF, Rudder said, which houses an Industry Documents Library that contains information related to industries that impact public health. 

Rudder said the files from the lawsuit against Juul will be cross-searchable with documents in the library, adding to the material available for researchers. The knowledge UCSF has about processing documents like ones from the lawsuit will help the university with its goal of creating teaching and learning materials from the files, Rudder said

“A pretty typical thing for a library to do with a set of materials is to create a research guide that explains what the documents are, how to find them, how to use them,” Rudder said.

University Libraries plans to select graduate assistants that will help researchers efficiently sift through the large set of materials. Ribisl said there are also plans for some UNC students to study the documents and write articles about them discussing what they’ve learned. 

Ribisl’s research assistants have already begun reviewing the documents, many in relation to Juul's advertising directed at minors. 

One document in particular, Ribisl said, contained research about Juul flavors that were most appealing to teens, such as "cool mint" and "fruit medley."

“They asked kids about which flavors they liked and [found] that kids love the flavors that they’re offering, and then they still didn’t pull them off the market until the end of the year,” Ribisl said.

As part of the settlement in 2021, Stein required Juul to pay nearly $50 million to the state, and to drastically alter their marketing practices. The money acquired from the settlement will go toward researching the health effects of e-cigarettes, specifically among younger populations.

“This was a landmark settlement,” Director of Library Communications Judy Panitch said. “To know that we have a role in a partnership that’s bringing these important documents to the public eye, I think, speaks well of the confidence in the University of North Carolina and the libraries here.” 

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