Juul

A Juul starter kit costs $49.99 at its website.

Juul Labs Inc., maker of the controversial and top-selling Juul electronic cigarette, is attempting to use Bluetooth technology as a way to limit youth usage of its products.

However, the strategy is unlikely to be rolled out domestically for years since it would require Juul Labs to successfully complete a daunting Food and Drug Administration regulatory gauntlet.

“We are actively evaluating new technologies and features to help keep Juul out of the hands of young people,” the company said in a statement Friday.

Kevin Burns, the company’s chief executive, told Bloomberg News that “we’re not a lifestyle brand, we’re a functional product. We don’t want the product to seem cool.”

Juul entered the mainstream retail marketplace in 2015, and is sold in the form of a pen or a USB device. That design makes it easy to hide its usage. On July 10, the company declared in a regulatory filing it has sold $650 million in securities from a $1.25 billion offering launch June 26.

Juul continues to expand its market share gap with R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co.’s Vuse at 70.5 percent to 10.8 percent, respectively. The market share is based on Nielsen data reported by Wells Fargo Securities analyst Bonnie Herzog.

The Juul growth comes despite increased scrutiny from the FDA and criticism from anti-tobacco advocates about anecdotal reports on youths using the product, including while they’re in school.

A Juul Labs U.S. patent application, submitted in April, would develop technology that could help users keep better track of how often they’re using the device, control the strength of the dose and change the intensity of the flavor, Bloomberg News reported. The application also describes strategies for keeping the device locked unless the user activates it with a PIN or biometric identifier.

“We plan to launch Bluetooth-enabled technology in international markets next year that will create the foundation that could enable a number of technological advances to help further restrict access to young people,” Juul Labs said. It has announced plans to debut Juul in the United Kingdom and Israel.

“Per the (FDA) deeming rule, however, we cannot introduce new products on the market in the U.S. without prior approval,” the company said.

Such a FDA application, particularly requesting reduced-risk status, would be intriguing given the FDA’s pursuit of reducing, if not eliminating, underage use of e-cigs and other tobacco and nicotine products.

On April 22, the FDA expanded and tightened its oversight over Juul products, including taking steps to halt online sales to youths on eBay. Although the four steps announced by FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in a new youth tobacco-prevention plan apply to other e-cigs, the focus clearly was on Juul.

Two days later, Juul Labs agreed to take significant steps to address federal and state regulatory concerns, including “actively supporting” initiatives to raise the minimum age to at least 21 to purchase tobacco products. It has since halted plans to roll out up to 55 new flavors.

Juul has pledged an initial investment of $30 million over three years dedicated to independent research, youth and parent education, and community engagement efforts.

Analysts say Juul Labs understands the public relations benefit of applying its technological advances toward reducing youth tobacco consumption.

“Juul is showing how technologically innovative companies can play a key role in ending the epidemic of smoking-caused disease,” said David Sweanor, an adjunct law professor at the University of Ottawa and author of several e-cig and other tobacco and health studies.

Sweanor said that when it comes to nicotine products, the FDA “is caught between pragmatism and an unscientific abstinence-only agenda.”

“Juul provides a great opportunity to re-calibrate and to fast-track innovations consistent with the agency’s overall mission to protect the health of Americans.”

Gregory Conley, president of American Vaping Association, cautioned that Juul Labs management “should tread carefully in adding new technology to ensure that it does not decrease the acceptability of its products to adult smokers.”

“While preventing usage in K-12 schools via geofencing could be a positive step forward, adding Bluetooth barriers that make it more difficult for adults to use the product could lead to less smokers quitting.”

“Had anti-vaping activists not repeatedly stopped Congress from enacting commonsense regulatory reforms at the FDA, Juul very well could be filing an application today to bring these innovations to the U.S.”

rcraver@wsjournal.com 336-727-7376 @rcraverWSJ

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