Is vaping a safe alternative for smokers who can’t quit nicotine, or a gateway habit that hooks people who otherwise wouldn’t smoke? That question, which has long divided the vaping industry from anti-smoking advocates, is now the center of a government investigation into the trendy e-cigarette company known as Juul.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now cracking down on Juul Labs, a Silicon Valley-based company whose products have been described as "the iPhone of e-cigs.”
In a letter to Ziad Rouag, an executive at Juul Labs, the FDA is demanding that that he turn over marketing and research materials among numerous other internal company documents.
“FDA is requesting these documents based on growing concern about the popularity of Juul products among youth,” says a letter that the agency sent him.
“We don’t yet fully understand why these products are so popular among youth,” FDA administrator Scott Gottlieb said Tuesday. “But it’s imperative that we figure it out, and fast.”
Juul rises to prominence in the e-cigarette industry
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that convert liquid into vapor, allowing smokers to inhale nicotine without the tobacco and other toxic components of traditional cigarettes. The products are an undoubtedly safer alternative to smoking, but how safe, exactly, is up for debate.
Some vape pens, like cigarettes, have been found to contain formaldehyde and other cancer-causing chemicals. And some users, particularly people who modify their vape pens, have reported the products randomly exploding, a defect that can cause disfiguring injuries.
Despite the concerns, numerous e-cigarette companies have drawn business through the use of flavored vape cartridges and the promise of smoke-free cigarettes. The Juul products in particular have taken a life of their own. According to industry figures, Juul sales now account for 55 percent of the United States e-cig market.
The Juul pen apparently avoids the risk of explosions through a design that can’t be modified by users, as well as a feature that the company characterizes as internal “temperature-control regulation.”
The Juul is also unique for its small and sleek design that disguises it to look like a flashdrive.
Teens latch on to “juuling”
It's perhaps for the latter reason that a trend known as “Juuling” has reportedly taken high school bathrooms by storm. In a letter to parents, admins at one Massachusetts high school last year warned that “Juuling in the bathroom” had gotten out of hand.
On Instagram, the #Juul hashtag brings up more than 100,000 posts, which include images of President Trump announcing that Juuling is allowed in school bathrooms and a cat smoking a Juul pen.
The Juul “has gained somewhat of a cult following among young adults,” as BuzzFeed News said earlier this year.
Marketing to youths
E-cigarette companies like Juul have tried to escape government scrutiny by claiming that their products are intended only for adults who need help quitting cigarettes.
A study conducted by researchers at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center last year claimed that 6.6 million American smokers could be saved from early death if they switch to e-cigarettes and never smoked the regular kind again.
The study was heavily promoted by the vaping industry, which claimed that it meant that vaping was a “life saver.” But critics argue that e-cigarettes instead seem to be intentionally marketed to young people who otherwise wouldn’t smoke.
Dr. Stanton Glantz, a medical professor and director of the Center for Tobacco Control and Research at the University of California, San Francisco, says that e-cigarettes, while less dangerous than cigarettes, aren’t actually helping smokers quit their habit.
A study that he co-authored in 2016 found that people who vape are 28 percent less likely to quit cigarettes. What's more, research has found that vaping may actually increase the likelihood of teens and young adults getting hooked on nicotine, and eventually, regular old cigarettes.
"If you can snap your finger and get all the smokers to switch to e-cigarettes with no other effects, there's no question we would be better off. But that's not what is happening," Glantz told ConsumerAffairs last year.
Cracking down on sales to minors
The FDA on Tuesday also publicly identified 40 retailers that it says have illegally sold Juul products to minors, part of “a large-scale, undercover nationwide blitz to crack down on the sale of e-cigarettes – specifically JUUL products,” the agency said.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Juul agreed that it is “unacceptable” that minors are apparently using its products.
‘‘We already have in place programs to identify and act upon these violations at retail and online marketplaces, and we will have more aggressive plans to announce in the coming days,’’ the company said.