Industry News

Senate opens investigation into Juul’s marketing practices to minors

Juul is one of the most popular e-cigarette brands among teens.

ingCatherine Ho | April 9, 2019 | S.F. Chronicle

Eleven Democratic U.S. senators on Monday opened an investigation into San Francisco vaping company Juul — adding to a growing chorus of regulators and legislators trying to clamp down on youth vaping and Juul in particular.

Led by Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., lawmakers sent a letter to Juul CEO Kevin Burns seeking detailed information about the company’s youth marketing tactics and the intentions behind its new partnership with Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, which in December announced it would pay $12.8 billion for a 35 percent stake in Juul.

Juul is one of the most popular e-cigarette brands among teens, selling nicotine pods that evoke the smell and flavor of mango, mint and creme. Analysts estimate the company has 70 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette market. In November, under pressure from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Juul voluntarily suspended the sale of most of its flavored pods in brick-and-mortar stores as part of an effort to combat underage vaping, but continued selling them online. The company also shut down its social media accounts.

The letter was signed by Durbin and Democratic Sens. Patty Murray, Ron Wyden, Sherrod Brown, Richard Blumenthal, Jack Reed, Elizabeth Warren, Tom Udall, Ed Markey, Jeff Merkley and Chris Van Hollen.

California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris are not among the signatories of the letter. But Feinstein is working with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on legislation to stop the online sale of e-cigarettes to minors.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose district includes Juul, directed questions to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., is taking the lead in the House against youth vaping. Pallone has said he plans to release legislation to restrict the sale of flavored e-cigarettes.

“While Juul has promised to address youth vaping through its modest voluntary efforts, by accepting $12.8 billion from Altria — a tobacco giant with such a disturbing record of deceptive marketing to hook children onto cigarettes — Juul has lost what little remaining credibility the company had when it claimed to care about the public health,” the Senate letter says. “While you and your investors may be perfectly content with hooking an entire new generation of children on your tobacco products in order to increase your profit margins, we will not rest until your dangerous products are out of the hands of our nation’s children.”

Juul has long said that its products are meant to help adult cigarette smokers wean off cigarettes, and the Altria investment will get more Juul products into the hands of smokers trying to quit cigarettes. As part of the Altria partnership, Juul inserts will be included in Altria-branded cigarette packs.

“We welcome the opportunity to share information regarding Juul Labs’ commitment to curbing underage use of our products while fulfilling our mission to eliminate combustible cigarettes, the number one cause of preventable death in our country,” Juul spokesman Ted Kwong said in a statement. “We agree that companies such as ours must step up with meaningful measures to limit access and appeal of vapor products to young people. That’s exactly what we’ve done, and we will do more to combat teen use to save the harm-reduction opportunity for the 34 million adult smokers in the United States.”

In the letter, the senators ask Juul to list all of its advertising buys including radio, television, print and social media, and to detail steps it has taken to ensure the ads are not seen by people under 21. They also ask Juul whether it has paid social media influencers to promote its products, and if so, to provide a list of those figures.

The lawmakers are also asking Juul for sales figures for all of its flavored products, broken down into physical retail channels and online.

Juul has until April 25 to respond to the questions and document requests.

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