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Juul's growing kids crisis

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Juul's campaign to convince America it does not target kids to vape is getting crushed by lawmakers, attorney generals and the media. The backlash is wicked — and widespread: 

Driving the news: The Connecticut attorney general this week announced an investigation into Juul's health claims and appeal to young people.

  • In May, the North Carolina attorney general sued Juul "for designing, marketing, and selling its e-cigarettes to attract young people."
  • A year ago, the Massachusetts attorney general launched a probe into accusations that Juul markets and sells to minors. [Corrects date]
  • The Trump administration has followed up tough talk with real action, Axios' Sam Baker tells me: The FDA is still moving forward with tight limits on e-cigarette sales, even over the objections of conservatives who say it's too much regulation from a Republican administration. 
  • In April, 11 Democratic senators (including Elizabeth Warren) sent Juul a letter demanding data and documents about "hooking an entire new generation" via its "highly addictive nicotine." Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the lead senator on the letter, wasn't satisfied by Juul's 22-page response, and continues to blast Juul's "PR campaign."

Juul is asking policymakers to distinguish between its past and present.

  • Juul CEO Kevin Burns wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in March that after FDA objections, "we stopped the sale of flavored Juul pods to traditional retail stores, enhanced our online age-verification process, strengthened our retailer compliance, and exited our Facebook and Instagram accounts."

But I continue to hear horror stories from parents and teachers about the vaping "epidemic" in middle and high schools — and administrators' helplessness in curtailing e-cigarettes in their halls, bathrooms and classrooms.

  • Why it matters: No sooner had cigarettes become decisively uncool when a sleek new nicotine delivery device started captivating our kids.
  • Along with Fortnite and other screen issues, "Juuling" has become a leading topic for parent-teacher conversations.
  • Federal researchers said in December that in an annual survey of American teenagers, 21% of high-school seniors "said they had vaped within the past 30 days — about double the level from the year before," the N.Y. Times reported.
  • Juul has about 75% market share, based on Nielsen convenience store data.

A front-page article in Saturday's Washington Post reported that some teens refer to school bathrooms as "Juul rooms":

  • "As e-cigarettes have skyrocketed in popularity, ... pediatricians report seeing teens who behave less like tobacco users and more like patients with substance-abuse disorders."
  • Many e-cigarettes, "including Juul, allow users to ingest far more nicotine than they would with traditional cigarettes."

A devastating analogy in the Post story: "[E]ven though many teens assume e-cigarettes are safe, some turn up with signs of nicotine toxicity, a condition previously seen in young children who accidentally ingested nicotine gum."

  • "These kids have behaviors that we often see in patients who have opioid or marijuana addiction," Sharon Levy of Boston Children's Hospital told The Post.
  • Addiction treatment specialists told The Post that some kids resort "to stealing from their parents or selling e-cigarette paraphernalia to support their habits."

A congressional hearing last week explored parallels between marketing by Juul and Big Tobacco, with a Stanford expert testifying that Juul's "early marketing (2015-early 2016) was patently youth oriented."

  • Dr. Robert Jackler, a surgeon and Stanford professor who launched a group to study the impact of tobacco advertising, testified that Juul "saturated social media channels frequented by underage teens ... which led to viral peer to peer promotion ... on youth oriented social media, especially Instagram."
  • Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), chair of the economic subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee, accused Juul of using "social media influencers to build a youth-oriented brand, making vaping a cultural phenomenon."

Juul's view ... James Monsees, co-founder and chief product officer of Juul, said in his opening statement at last week's congressional hearing:

  • "When minors use our product, far from benefiting our business, it causes direct harm. Indeed, the single biggest risk to our company is that unabated growth in underage usage will cause us to lose our ability to reach our true intended market of adult smokers."

In a response for this article, Juul's Ted Kwong told Axios: "JUUL Labs exists to help adult smokers switch from combustible cigarettes, which are still the leading cause of preventable death in the world and we do not want non-nicotine users to buy JUUL products. We share these serious concerns about youth vaping."

Go deeper: Juul exploring opening its own store