Juul has long claimed to be trying to save lives; meanwhile, his own existence sometimes seems uncertain.
Right now is one of those times. As reported earlier today by multiple outlets, the erstwhile e-cigarette company just agreed to a $438.5 million settlement with 33 states that alleged the company sold its product to underage users.
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong announced the deal, noting that in addition to the financial terms, the agreement will force Juul to adhere to specific marketing and commercial practices, including refraining from portraying people under the age of 35 in marketing in movies, on billboards or on social media or to sell Juul-branded merchandise.
The company also agreed never to fund education programs in schools again, though it ramped up that short-lived practice years ago under pressure from regulators. (In 2018, Juul sponsored a summer camp in Baltimore, among other initiatives that came before and after. In 2019, while Juul executives were criticized by a House subcommittee that accused Juul of targeting schools and youth camps, a Juul spokesperson told The New York Times (that overall the company has awarded six grants of unspecified amounts to schools and youth programs for health and tobacco prevention activities.)
The new agreement — which is to be paid out over six to 10 years — is the largest Juul has agreed to. Since last year, as noted by the WSJ, Juul has agreed to pay a total of $87 million in settlements with four other states that filed lawsuits against the company, including Louisiana, Arizona, North Carolina and Washington. Meanwhile, Juul still faces thousands of other lawsuits, including ones brought by nine other attorneys general.
That the company itself didn’t go up in smoke is something of a miracle. The sleek, battery-powered vaping devices and nicotine pods in sweet flavors like cucumber, mango, mint and creme brulee became wildly popular with teenagers soon after Juul launched in 2015. But in early 2018, the outfit was sued by customers who said , that he became addicted due to the high levels of nicotine in the product.
Still wwith sales surging and investors knocking on the door, Juul executives repeatedly denied it was targeting teenagers, even as earlier ads showed attractive and seemingly very young men and women with Juul devices in hand. The company – arguing that its products are aimed at older smokers looking for a safer alternative to combustible cigarettes – has instead stepped up its lobbying efforts in Washington.
However, he underestimated the power of the FDA and the agency’s then-commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who by the fall of 2018 had declared cigarette smoking an “epidemic.”
Indeed, that fall, the agency gave Juul, along with many other vape makers, a deadline to come up with “robust” plans to prevent youth vape use, and since then the FDA has been unhappy with Juul’s alleged efforts to pull its market from teenagers. In fact, in June, the FDA ordered Juul to pull its products from the US market. It has since suspended that ban while Juul appeals the decision.
Juul is apparently hoping this huge new settlement will get the company to win back the trust of regulators and move forward. But even if the company — which sold 35 percent of its business to tobacco giant Altria for $12.8 billion in late 2018 — goes up in steam under the weight of all those settlement agreements and pending lawsuits and ongoing opposition, it seems it’s too late to stop what Yuul started.
In addition to other of Juul’s previous rivals, a new product is now taking the market by storm. This time it’s a disposable e-cigarette brand called Puff Bar. According to the WSJ, the two-year-old Los Angeles-based company overtook Juul a full year ago as the most popular electronic cigarette among American high school students, many of whom are still getting inspired.
While about 20 percent of high school students said they used an e-cigarette at least once in a 30-day period in 2020, based on a national survey conducted online, about 11 percent said in the same survey in 2021 that they had used e- cigarettes at least once in the previous 30 days.
Surprisingly, the Puff Bar offers even more flavors – 16 in total – including banana ice, cool mint and strawberry.
Its ads are also eerily reminiscent of early Juul ads, depicting in one case a young woman hidden by smoke, and in another, encouraging users to take a “solo break” to “escape … parental messages.”
Puff Bar has reportedly been able to circumvent the FDA because it says its nicotine is not derived from tobacco, but instead relies on synthetic nicotine. Meanwhile, the FDA told the WSJ last fall that it was considering how to deal with the company and other synthetic tobacco makers.
No doubt current and former Juul executives are watching with great interest to see what happens next.