- The Silicon Valley startup Juul announced on Tuesday that it would temporarily stop selling its flavored e-cigarettes in stores.
- The move comes on the heels of a similar ban on flavored e-cigs that the city of San Francisco enacted over the summer.
- Researchers nearly unanimously praised the move, which they say could help protect young people by making the products less appealing and harder to purchase.
In an attempt to address what government regulators are calling an “epidemic” of teen vaping, the Silicon Valley startup Juul will stop selling its flavored e-cigarettes in all retail stores, including convenience stores, vape shops, and gas stations.
It’s the company’s most sweeping change since it began selling its sleek, flash-drive-esque e-cigs in the summer of 2017.
But it’s only temporary. The company said it would resume selling its flavored products to stores once they agree to adopt Juul’s new age restrictions and a stronger system for making sure customers are at least 21 years old.
“As of this morning, we stopped accepting retail orders for our Mango, Fruit, Creme, and Cucumber Juul pods to the over 90,000 retail stores that sell our product, including traditional tobacco retailers (e.g., convenience stores) and specialty vape shops,” Juul CEO Kevin Burns said in a statement on Tuesday.
Juul said it would continue to offer mint-, menthol- and tobacco-flavored products in stores because those flavours are available in combustible cigarettes.
Scientists and public-health advocates have been nearly unanimous in voicing approval of the move, which they say is a good first step toward helping protect young people by making the products less appealing and harder to purchase. But some say it doesn’t go far enough.
At the moment, Juul is the top e-cig brand, making up nearly 80% of the e-cig market. On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the company was preparing to voluntarily pull its flavored products from brick-and-mortar stores ahead of an expected Food and Drug Administration ban on flavours.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and several scientists have said they’re particularly concerned about Juul because of its uniquely high concentrations of nicotine, a highly addictive substance, as well as its appealing fruit and mint flavours.
“We’re deeply concerned about the epidemic of youth use of e-cigs,” Gottlieb said on Twitter on Tuesday. “Voluntary action is no substitute for regulatory steps #FDA will soon take. But we want to recognise actions by JUUL today and urge all manufacturers to immediately implement steps to start reversing these trends.”
A study published in October suggested a “rapid uptake” of Juul use among young people, including minors, and several researchers have said the flavours are an especially appealing part of the product.
Researchers and public-health advocates have also praised the expected FDA ban, which they said was another important starting point.
“From my perspective as a pediatrician, I think this is a step in the right direction in limiting sales and marketing of e-cigarettes to adolescents and young adults,” Nicholas Chadi, a clinical pediatrics fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, told Business Insider.
A focus on flavours
Sweet e-cigarette flavours like apple pie and watermelon have been a focus of the FDA and other public-health agencies.
In a September statement announcing steps the FDA was taking to curb teen vaping, Gottlieb said the agency was “seriously considering a policy change that would lead to the immediate removal of these flavored products from the market.”
In Juul’s statement about its decision, it directly acknowledged Gottlieb’s concerns – a significant change for the company, which has previously defended its flavours by saying they play an important role for adults looking to switch from traditional cigarettes to e-cigs.
“Our data show that flavours play a critical role in adult smokers’ ability to switch from combustible cigarettes, but we must prevent youth access,” Burns said on Tuesday.
An effort to address Juul’s social-media problem
Another part of Juul’s statement outlines a plan to address its marketing on social media, including deleting its accounts.
“We are attacking the presence of Juul Labs on social media in two ways – eliminating our own social media accounts and continuing to monitor and remove inappropriate material from third-party accounts,” Burns said.
Researchers who’ve examined Juul’s social-media campaigns – which have been posted on platforms popular with young people, like YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram – have described them as a runaway but problematic success.
Juul stood out from other e-cigarette brands by advertising predominantly on social media as opposed to places like billboards or magazines, scientists said in a study published this summer in the journal Tobacco Control.
The campaigns took off, according to the researchers, who found that sales of the devices were “highly correlated” with the company’s social-media posts.
In Tuesday’s statement, Burns acknowledged that problem and said Juul’s exit from social media was designed to address it. The company also said it would double down on existing efforts to flag and remove material it deems inappropriate from other accounts posting about Juul.
“There is no question that this user-generated social media content is linked to the appeal of vaping to underage users,” Burns said. “This is why we have worked directly with social media platforms to remove tens of thousands of inappropriate posts.”
San Francisco’s flavour ban may have paved the way for similar moves from Juul and the FDA
Over the summer, the city of San Francisco banned the sale of flavored e-cigs and menthol cigarettes. Several big names, including Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, expressed support for the ban, suggesting it could spur similar moves in other cities.
“This vote should embolden other cities and states to act, because it demonstrates the public will not allow tobacco companies to stand in the way of policies that are proven to reduce smoking and save lives,” he said in a statement.
Other advocates and many researchers who study e-cigs agreed.
“Most scientists believe flavourings are used to target teenagers into becoming users,” Ana Rule, a professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University who wrote a recent study on e-cigs and teens, told Business Insider this summer.
“There are, of course, many other factors, such as marketing and peer pressure,” she added. “But when you look at the flavoring names, one has to wonder.”