Over the past year, Juul, the vaping sensation that dominates 70 percent of the US e-cigarette market, has tried to cultivate the image of decent corporate citizen that wants to play by the rules. The company is known for its legions of obsessive young users who have embraced Juul’s discrete, flash-drive-shaped e-cigarettes and pleasing nicotine pods in flavors like fruit medley and mango. When parents and school administrators, public health advocates, and regulators raised concerns, Juul insisted it only wants to help adult smokers stop smoking.
After an April inquiry from the Food and Drug Administration about its marketing, Juul pledged to spend $30 million over the next three years on youth smoking prevention and to support Tobacco 21, a national campaign aimed at raising the minimum age for tobacco and nicotine sales in the US. In June, the company vowed to stop using models in its social media ads and to work with social media companies to remove offending posts and accounts.
With other moves, however, Juul has left even allies wondering about its views. The company has declined to take a position on a controversial bill to ease FDA review of some new e-cigarette products. In May, Juul stayed out of an expensive battle over flavored tobacco in its hometown, San Francisco. Then, in June, Juul sent an email blast to consumers asking them to oppose proposed federal and local regulations to ban vapor flavors because they would make it difficult for adult smokers to switch away from cigarettes. “If flavors have been important to your switching journey, please let the FDA know,” the message said, directing consumers to a site where they could post a comment for the FDA.
Most recently, Juul last week tweeted from its corporate account that “it’s not an e-cigarette.” That confused Alex Clark, executive director of Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, an advocacy group that supports e-cigarettes and tobacco alternatives. “It has a different design, a slightly different formulation, but it’s still a vapor product,” Clark says of Juul.
Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, thinks Juul’s wavering is driven by politics. “They were a little too willing to sell out the 18, 19, and 20 year old smokers by agreeing to support Tobacco 21, but they were in a unique situation with the hundreds of stories coming out” about teens using Juul, Conley says. But he thinks Juul will ultimately join the rest of the industry in opposing government regulation. “There’s a difference between supporting a policy and spending massive amounts of money” to push it, he says. Juul says it has written letters in support of local efforts to impose age requirements.
Public health advocates are also skeptical of Juul’s position on younger users. In January, Kimberlee Homer Vagadori, project director of California Youth Advocacy Network, was alarmed to learn that Juul had offered to partner with K-12 schools for a youth smoking prevention program that included focus groups with younger users. The tobacco industry began sponsoring youth prevention efforts in the 1980s as a way to forestall legislation, but studies found that they did more harm than good. “It’s just a marketing ploy,” Vagadori says.
Juul says it no longer reaches out to schools. “We are aware of the criticism and scrutiny from some regarding our efforts,” says spokesperson Victoria Davis. “But we cannot be more clear—we want to work with policymakers, lawmakers, FDA regulators, educators, and parents on youth education and prevention. We want to be part of the solution in keeping minors away from Juul.”
Juul’s moves come at crucial time for the company, founded by two Stanford alums who set out to apply their product design skills to build a cleaner, cooler vaporizer that would fit in your pocket. In December, Juul spun out of its parent company, Pax Labs, and is in the process of raising more than $1.2 billion at a $15 billion valuation, up from an estimated $350 million in 2015.
The vaping industry itself is at an inflection point. After years with no federal oversight, companies now have until 2022 to submit a costly, complicated review process with the FDA. In the meantime, states are playing catch-up with Juul’s sudden ubiquity in high school bathrooms, cracking down on e-cigarettes with taxes, indoor bans, flavor bans, and more.
‘It’s more indication that Juul is behaving like tobacco companies always have.’
Vince Willmore, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids
As Juul’s financial ambitions inflate, the company finds itself on the same side of regulatory battles as the tobacco industry it once hoped to disrupt. This leaves Juul shuffling, awkwardly, between its public image and private sales pitch. Now the company has to convince regulators that it wants to push away the teens that made it famous, just as it’s trying to convince investors that a highly regulated piece of hardware can scale as quickly as lines of code.
Juul declined to make executives available, but Davis, the spokesperson, says, “We are investing in our Washington, DC office because we want to support bipartisan policies to help adult smokers in their switching journey.”
For now, e-cigarettes and the vaping industry are puffing away in regulatory limbo. The FDA did not start regulating tobacco products until 2009, after Congress passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. But it wasn’t until 2016 that the FDA officially extended its authority over newer products, like e-cigarettes. A morass of exceptions, extensions, and lawsuits followed. For now, newly regulated products like e-cigarettes are supposed to retroactively go through a complicated review process with the FDA before 2022 without knowing exactly what the standards around vaping will be.
That’s why the controversial bill on which Juul declined to take a position is key. The measure, known as the Cole-Bishop amendment, would exempt e-cigarette companies from the FDA review if they can show that a new product is “substantially equivalent” to an existing product. It was included in a House agricultural appropriations bill in May, and awaits consideration by the Senate.
Records show that Juul has spent $240,000 to lobby Congress on vaping and e-cigarette regulation since last year, including FDA rules and the appropriations bills. But when WIRED asked Juul about its position on the Cole-Bishop amendment, the company did not give a straight answer. “Juul Labs is looking to work with the FDA and Congress on establishing scientifically-valid and appropriate regulations of [electronic nicotine delivery systems or ENDS] products,” the company said in a statement.
That worries some anti-smoking advocates. “Juul’s comments are troubling. If they are serious about being part of the solution, they would support effective FDA regulation and they would be opposing efforts to weaken FDA authority and it’s troubling that they’re not opposing it,” says Vince Willmore, vice president of communications with the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. “It’s more indication that Juul is behaving like tobacco companies always have.”
Against this backdrop, Juul is quickly ramping up its Washington presence. In the past six months, Juul hired two well-connected former Department of Health and Human Services officials, one from George W. Bush’s administration and one from Barack Obama’s, for its new DC office. Tevi Troy, the head of the Washington office, co-authored an op-ed in 2015 about Obamacare with FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
The company is also making moves at the state level. Juul has spent $62,000 to lobby about “harm reduction” in California, it has registered a lobbyist in New York, and partnered with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who made his name as a crusader against big tobacco, for its $30 million youth prevention effort.
In a recent interview with Politico, Troy, the head of Juul’s Washington office, said the company has a window this year “to establish a regulatory regime and a legislative atmosphere and a thought leader atmosphere, a kind of public health consciousness, to set the market correctly.”
“I agree with you that using a Juul is worse than doing nothing,” he said in the same interview. “Nobody who is not smoking should take up this product. Nobody who’s a kid should take up this product. I even have a little text replacement on my iPhone. I just type in a couple letters and it pops up: ‘For Adults Smokers only.’”