Juul Labs Inc. has made another flavoring concession on its top-selling electronic cigarettes, choosing Thursday to immediately cease online sales of its mint pod products and halt from retailers and wholesalers.
K.C. Crosthwaite, Juul’s chief executive, said Juul will sell only Virginia tobacco, classic tobacco and menthol flavorings — the same flavors allowed for traditional cigarettes.
Crosthwaite said the decision was made largely in response to Tuesday’s release of the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey and Monitoring the Future survey that determined U.S. teens who use e-cigarettes prefer those made by Juul.
The survey also found that mint became the preferred flavor for youths after Juul ceased in November 2018 selling its creme, cucumber, fruit and mango flavorings at retail outlets, but kept them available via age-verification requirements on its website.
On Oct. 17, Juul said it would halt all sales of those non-tobacco and non-menthol flavors.
The survey also found that 28% of high school students and 11% of middle school students said they had used e-cigarettes at least once within a 30-day period.
Crosthwaite said the rise in teen e-cigarette usage is “unacceptable and that is why we must reset the vapor category in the U.S. and earn the trust of society by working cooperatively with regulators, attorneys general, public health officials and other stakeholders to combat underage use.”
The Juul flavorings pullback comes as the Food and Drug Administration is expected to release any day its final rules on heightened e-cigarette regulations that are expected to ban all flavorings outside tobacco and menthol. Anti-tobacco critics have pressured the FDA to ban menthol.
Juul is trying “to stay ahead of the curve, mitigate the criticism and to try and rebuild trust if possible,” said Scott Ballin, past chairman of the anti-smoking alliance Coalition of Science or Health.
Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, downplayed the Juul flavoring decision, saying it is only stopping mint sales “only when it has absolutely no choice, and then to make a change that will have far less impact than it appears.”
“Juul is trying to get public-relations mileage out of an action it knows it will soon be required to take by federal regulators.”
The original Vuse version by R.J. Reynolds Vapor is the No. 2 selling e-cigarette. Its current flavors are tobacco, menthol, mint, rich tobacco, chai, crema, fusion, tropical, mixed berry, melon and nectar.
Reynolds American Inc. spokeswoman Kaelan Hollon said in September the manufacturer “shares President Trump’s concern that some flavors, such as those resembling ‘kid friendly’ food products, may play a role in increasing youth appeal and that marketing activities should not be directed to youth.”
Fontem Ventures, maker of blu eCigs brand, continues to sell sweeter flavors, including honeymoon, neon dream, blue ice and melon time.
In July, the FDA was ordered by a federal judge to accelerate its regulatory oversight over e-cigarettes by May 2020.
“We will support the upcoming FDA flavor policy and will follow the (premarket tobacco application) process,” Crosthwaite said.
The premarket tobacco-application process requires the agency to consider products’ existing risks and benefits to the population as a whole, including users and non-users.
Although the flavored e-cigarette removal process could start within months of the final rules being announced, it likely will take several years for the FDA to work though the expected legal challenges from tobacco manufacturers and advocates.
The other reaction is a concern about “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” given that several studies have demonstrated that some flavored e-cigarettes are helping to wean adult smokers from traditional cigarettes.
“It continues to astound me that there can be talk of ‘hitting reset’ with no apparent concern about the tremendous and entirely foreseeable damage this could do to public health,” said David Sweanor, an adjunct law professor at the University of Ottawa and the author of several e-cigarette and health studies.
“Millions of Americans are vaping, and Juul alone has substituted for (traditional) cigarettes at an extraordinary pace in many markets. So, it is sort of like hitting ‘reset’ on vaccinations or sanitary food manufacturing.
“There are reasons good policy analysis focuses on risks and benefits, rather than just risks.”
In recent months, Juul has confirmed it will conduct a major workforce reduction by the end of the year. Several media reports, including first by the Wall Street Journal, said it could be as many as 500 jobs. Juul has about 4,100 employees, so 500 jobs would represent a 12% reduction.
Besides announcing Crosthwaite’s appointment on Sept. 25, Juul suspended all U.S. broadcast, print and digital product advertising. Juul and Vuse began running commercials on national cable channels’ late-night programs earlier this year.
The Juul moves come as the e-cigarette sector is facing an avalanche of public-health criticism over deaths and severe illnesses related to e-cigarette consumption.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said its investigation into an outbreak of severe vaping-related illnesses is focused primarily on open-pod e-cigarettes in which liquids containing the marijuana compound THC are being vaped.
Open-pod systems tend to be sold by smaller makers of e-cigarettes, including vape shops, that offer more flavor options, such as several varieties of fruit, candy and coffee.
The CDC’s latest update on vaping-related illnesses, released Thursday, determined there have been at least 2,051 cases nationwide and at least 40 related deaths. The CDC has not confirmed whether the problem stems from THC or from thickeners added to the vaping liquid.
There have been few incidents reported involving the closed-pod e-cigarettes sold by Juul Labs, Reynolds Vapor, Fontem and NJoy.