Public-health advocates point to the popularity of Juul, a company whose products account for more than 70 percent of the American e-cigarette market, as the primary culprit for soaring adolescent-usage rates. In addition to its sweet flavors and small, easily concealed device, the company gained its foothold in the tobacco market with bright advertising campaigns that showed young adults vaping socially—a tactic the company has since been pressured to discontinue over complaints that it targets teenagers.
In December, Juul sold a 35 percent stake to the tobacco company Altria, which also owns the cigarette brand Marlboro, in a deal that valued the three-year-old company at $38 billion. (Juul has frequently denied accusations that its products or marketing have ever been aimed at minors, and the company’s CEO, Kevin Burns, has recently warned nonsmokers not to take up vaping.)
When vapes flooded the American consumer market in the early 2010s, concerns over the products’ unknown long-term health impacts were tempered by modest optimism about their ability to steer smokers away from the catastrophic dangers of cigarettes. That argument failed to consider how popular and widely available the vaping device itself would become, and how little is still known about the ingredients in vape juice and what dangers they might pose to people inhaling vapor of any kind.
In the past two weeks, more than 400 previously healthy young people have been hospitalized in 33 states because of a mysterious lung ailment the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions believes is most likely linked to cannabis vapes, both legal and non. Six people have died. At the same time, preliminary findings about the long-term health consequences of vaping are starting to pile up.
Today’s announcement is the most far-reaching anti-vaping measure in a year in which officials at virtually every level of government have looked for ways to steer minors away from e-cigarettes. In November 2018, the FDA announced it would ban the sale of flavored e-cigarette cartridges at convenience stores, but that ban didn’t include mint or menthol flavors, and it hasn’t been enough to stymie adolescent vaping. In the absence of more stringent measures from federal authorities, states and municipalities have begun to take vaping into their own hands. Earlier this week, Michigan became the first state to ban flavored e-cigarettes, and the City of San Francisco approved an e-cigarette ban earlier this year. (Juul is lobbying to reverse San Francisco’s ban through a ballot initiative that will be voted on later this year.)
“Kids are getting access to these products in spite of our best efforts at retail enforcement,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Alex Azar said during the announcement earlier today. “We simply have to remove these attractive flavored products from the marketplace.”