Juul Labs, which makes the bestselling e-cigarette in the U.S. and triggered a federal regulators’ crackdown into a teen vaping “epidemic,” has had a bittersweet existence. Juul, which began in 2015, has gotten 40 percent of the market.
Juul has become so successful that Altria, the biggest U.S. cigarette company, invested $12.8 billion for a 35 percent share of the San Francisco-based start-up. Success has come with a price, though: teenagers love Juul vapes, nearly 21 percent of high school students vaped last year and that upsets federal regulators and parents.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb holds Juul responsible for the teen vaping epidemic. Juul CEO Kevin Burns would say to parents whose children are addicted to Juul’s e-cigarettes, “I’m sorry,” according to Angelica LaVito of CNBC, which has produced a documentary called “Vaporized: America’s E-cigarette Addiction.”
Burns, who joined Juul in late 2017, said, “First of all, I’d tell them that I’m sorry that their child’s using the product. It’s not intended for them. I hope there was nothing that we did that made it appealing to them. As a parent of a 16-year-old, I’m sorry for them, and I have empathy for them, in terms of the challenges they’re going through.”
E-cigarettes are supposed to help adults to quit smoking while still using nicotine. Still, Juul’s initial advertising campaign depicted bright colors and young looking models, and its flavors were appealing to teens. While cigarette sales have been decreasing significantly for several decades, vaping is very popular and seemingly very addictive for teens. Around 3 million U.S. high school students vaped last year, promoting the concern that e-cigarettes are addicting a new generation of nicotine users.
Juul has attempted to stop youth use by closing its social media accounts and taking fruity flavors like creme and mango away from retailers. The company’s home base of San Francisco banned sales of e-cigarettes in June.
Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a Stanford pediatrics professor, said her research team discovered that kids are “more addicted” to Juul than other products, because the nicotine level in Juul pods is “astronomically high.” The Juul pods contain 5 percent nicotine. Other e-cigarette pods, available before Juul’s introduction, contained somewhere between 1 and 2.4 percent nicotine, according to the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit that is trying to eradicate the use of tobacco. Juul has since introduced lower dosages with 3 percent nicotine for some of its flavors, but some teens are already hooked, taking in a daily dose of nicotine with Juul that is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes.
Some people hold Gottlieb responsible for the problem too. As FDA commissioner, he delayed a deadline to put e-cigarettes under FDA review by now and remove some from the market. The FDA review process makes the agency weigh the net public health benefit — how many adults will benefit from e-cigarettes as opposed to how many teens might be harmed — when deciding to enable products to stay on the market.
In 2017, Gottlieb changed the deadline to 2022 from 2018. After becoming aware of the surge in teen use, he changed his mind and moved the deadline up by a year. The courts may make the deadline sooner. A federal judge concurred with public health groups that sued the FDA on this issue.
Other people say there is not enough data to determine the long-term effects of e-cigarettes. While they may give the 34.3 million smokers in the U.S. a safer alternative, they may have other, unintended consequences.