As FDA and FTC probe Juul, CEO blames health concerns on THC

30 Aug 2019

A Juul e-cigarette and Juul Pod refills. Image: SteveHeap/Depositphotos

While the FTC investigates Juul’s advertising practices, the FDA is looking into whether there is a connection between seizures and e-cigarette use.

Earlier this month, e-cigarette manufacturer Juul Labs announced that it had raised $325m through an equity and debt offering.

As regulations on e-cigarettes are tightened in the US, particularly in San Francisco, where Juul is headquartered, the company has been devising plans to use this funding on global expansion.

However, two major US investigations into the company are ongoing.

The first investigation involves the US federal trade commission (FTC), which is examining Juul’s marketing practices. The Wall Street Journal reported that Juul’s advertising strategy “mirrored the tobacco industry’s promotional playbook in an effort to hook young people”, according to experts.

Investigators are also increasingly concerned due to the fact that Marlboro parent company Altria has invested $12.8bn in Juul. This investment occurred after the FTC began its investigation last year.

The Verge pointed out some of the initiatives Juul is launching to distance itself from the youth market. These plans include creating a Bluetooth-enabled e-cigarette that requires users to submit government-issued photo ID to use the product, and offering up to $100m in incentives to push retailers to install electronic age-verification systems on their point-of-sale software.

E-cigarette-related illnesses

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported that the US food and drug administration (FDA) launched its investigation into whether or not e-cigarettes can cause seizures, based on reports from people who used Juul devices.

There have also been reports of a “mysterious lung illness” linked to vaping, resulting in at least one death so far.

The director of the FDA’s centre for tobacco products, Mitch Zeller, said these illnesses presented “no proof of causality, but at a minimum, an association with Juul”.

Prior to Bloomberg accessing this information through a public-records request, the FDA had not previously identified any one manufacturer’s device as being tied to seizures. Before this, it was also unconfirmed that the people involved had specified they used Juul e-cigarettes.

The investigation began in October 2018, six months before the FDA made a warning to the public about e-cigarettes in the hope that more individuals would come forward with further information.

By August 2019, there were nearly 130 reports of seizures or other neurological symptoms among young people who had used e-cigarettes from 2010 to 2019.

A Juul spokesperson told Bloomberg: “We will vigilantly monitor for any evidence of potential safety issues and work cooperatively as we continue to combat youth usage and eliminate cigarettes.”

THC claims

On Thursday (29 August), Juul Labs CEO Kevin Burns appeared in an interview on CBS This Morning.

Speaking to co-host Tony Dokoupil, Burns stated that Juul had been in close contact with health officials regarding illness reports.

“We’d like to get all the specifics that we can to make sure we have access to the information, so if there’s any issue that was driven, associated with us, that we can get to the root cause and understand that,” he said.

Dokoupil asked Burns if the company would consider taking a “timeout” from sales to focus on getting to the bottom of the issue. He responded: “Well, I don’t know if it’s tied to vaping even associated with nicotine products. Most of the early reports have indicated it’s related to THC [tetrahydrocannabinol].”

Dokoupil questioned the validity of that claim, saying: “I don’t know about most.” However, Burns doubled down on the comment. He said: “Most [of the reports] that have any specifics have said they’re related to THC. We don’t have the details on all those reports.

“If there was any indication that there was an adverse health condition related to our product I think we’d take very swift action associated with it.”

A Juul e-cigarette and Juul Pod refills. Image: SteveHeap/Depositphotos

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic