25 July 2019
WASHINGTON — Last summer, with public concern about teenage vaping growing, Juul Labs paid a charter school organization in Baltimore $134,000 to set up a five-week summer camp to teach children healthy lifestyles.
The curriculum was created by Juul — maker of the very vaping devices that were causing the most alarm among parents, health experts and public officials.
In April 2017, a Juul representative visited the Dwight School in New York City to meet with students — with no teachers present — and told them the company’s e-cigarettes were “totally safe.”
Other schools across the country were offered $10,000 from the e-cigarette company for the right to talk to students in classrooms or after school.
In Richmond, Calif. last year, Juul gave the Police Activities League $90,000 to offer the company’s vaping education program “Moving Beyond” to middle school and high school students who faced suspension for using cigarettes.
Those efforts were among many detailed by a House subcommittee on Thursday afternoon in the second day of hearings on the problem of youth vaping and Juul’s role in it — a topic that the Food and Drug Administration and two state attorneys general have been investigating for more than a year.
Juul “deployed a sophisticated program to enter schools and convey its messaging directly to teenage children,” recruited thousands of online influencers to market its vaping devices to youths and targeted children as young as 8 in summer camp, a memo prepared by subcommittee staff members claimed.
Testifying before the panel, James Monsees, one of Juul’s co-founders, emphasized the company’s decision last year to stop selling most of its flavored nicotine pods in stores and limit their availability to online, age-verified sales.
“I can’t imagine a more responsive and proactive action we could take,” he said, adding that the company lost about half its business at the time as a result.
Juul, which has an estimated $38 billion valuation, stopped shipping the flavored pods to retailers at a time when the Food and Drug Administration was threatening to remove its devices from the market if it did not make them inaccessible to youths.
On the education-related programs, Representative Katie Hill, Democrat of California, criticized the company for its sponsorship of the summer camp in Baltimore and a contract last year with LifeSkills, a Kentucky outfit that was supposed to offer a health program for more than 1,000 children. She accused Juul of financing such camps in exchange for data about test scores, surveys and activity logs.
She grilled Ashley Gould, the company’s chief administrative officer, about the programs and asked why Juul would need such data. “I’m not aware of that,” Ms. Gould said, but also defended the grants and outreach to schools.
“Anything we undertook in the educational space was intended to keep kids away from using the product,” Ms. Gould said.
In a tweet after the hearing, Congresswoman Hill noted the data sharing, and asked: “Think that’s messed up? So do I. And I can only imagine the possible uses of that data in the hands of big tobacco.”
A Juul spokesman said the company had given out just six grants of unspecified amounts to schools and youth programs for health and vaping prevention activities — but added that it no longer was funding such programs.
Juul’s sleek vaping devices and flavored pods with high nicotine levels have become hugely popular with teenagers since the company launched in 2015. Juul executives have repeatedly denied targeting young people and say their products are designed for adult smokers who want a safer alternative to combustible cigarettes.
The vapors inhaled through e-cigarettes do not contain the carcinogens created by burning tobacco. But the nicotine in them is highly addictive, and many public health officials fear their popularity among teenagers who have never smoked is creating a new generation of nicotine addicts.
The subcommittee based its findings on thousands of documents obtained from Juul and from the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, which is investigating Juul, as is the attorney general of North Carolina.
Included in the documents are emails that show Juul executives struggling to deal with worsening public opinion and comparisons to Big Tobacco — even before Altria, the maker of Marlboros, bought a 35 percent stake of the company last December.
One email, dated April 17, 2018, was from Julie Henderson, director of Juul’s youth prevention and education program, to two consultants. It refers to a discussion she had with Ms. Gould about whether the company should attend a health fair at Hinsdale Central High School, in Illinois.
“Just spoke with Ashley and she shares my concern about the optics of us attending a student health fair given our new understanding of how much our efforts seem to duplicate those of Big Tobacco,” Ms. Henderson wrote. “(Philip Morris attended fairs and carnivals where they distributed various branded items under the guise of ‘youth prevention.’)”
One of the big questions the F.D.A. has been trying to answer is whether Juul intentionally marketed its products to teenagers. Among the documents presented at the hearing was a detailed company plan to recruit celebrity “influencers” to spread the word about the devices during their early days on the market.
“We are aiming for influencers in popular culture with large audiences in various sectors such as music, movies, social, pop media, etc.,” a company memo said.
Other people testifying before the House panel on Wednesday said Juul’s efforts to curb youth access to its products were too little, too late. Its school vaping education programs were of particular concern.
The lawmakers contend that the activities Juul introduced in 2018 as prevention programs were actually intended to familiarize teenagers with its products.
It has been nearly a year since the F.D.A. started its crackdown on Juul. At that time, the agency seized documents from Juul’s offices.
After Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who was then commissioner, threatened to pull Juul off the shelves if the company could not keep the products away from youths, Juul responded by ending most of its social media campaigns. It also began restricting sales of some fruit and dessert flavors to online sales which require age verification to ensure buyers are over 21.
Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, Democrat of Illinois and chairman of the panel overseeing the hearing, said he was concerned about the difficulty parents have in detecting e-cigarettes, compared to combustible products. He also took issue with Juul’s assertion that it had removed youth-friendly flavors from stores.
“Although you say you took all the flavors out of the stores, you left the mint flavor,” he said. “Mint is a flavor and it took the place of other flavors.”
Juul’s rebranding campaign has relied on a lobbying army to press its case around the country, as well as recruiting scientists to build evidence that “Juuling” is more of a benefit than a liability for public health. The company has until May 2020 to prove to the F.D.A. that its products are more beneficial than detrimental.
Dr. Norman E. (Ned) Sharpless, the agency’s acting commissioner, has vowed to continue Dr. Gottlieb’s crackdown on youth vaping. But it’s unclear whether Dr. Sharpless has the clout to continue a regulatory push that has mixed support, at best, at the White House.
Juul has spent $940,000 on lobbying so far this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. The e-cigarette company has not yet reported its 2019 campaign contributions, but in March, Kevin Burns, Juul’s chief executive, donated $125,000 to a Republican fund-raising committee called “Take Back the House.”