WASHINGTON — Pledges by executives from Juul Labs and four other e-cigarette companies to address the youth vaping epidemic met with skepticism by several lawmakers at a House oversight hearing on Wednesday.
CEOs from Juul, Reynolds American, and NJOY, as well as the presidents Logic and Fontem were questioned for several hours by members of the Committee on Energy and Commerce’s oversight and investigations subcommittee about their role in the epidemic and their plans for reducing youth access and use of their products.
The hearing was held one day before the Trump administration’s partial ban on flavored e-cigarettes goes into effect, which outlaws pre-filled vaping pods in fruit, candy, and other flavors except tobacco and menthol. But it does not include single-use e-cigarettes, refillable tank-type devices, or bulk liquids.
Juul previously pulled its non-menthol and non-tobacco flavored products from the market.
Last year the number of middle school and high school students in the U.S. who reported current use of e-cigarettes increased to 5 million, from 3.6 million the previous year, with more than 1 in 4 high school students (27.5%) reporting e-cigarette use within the last 30 days.
Within 2 years of entering the U.S. market, Juul became the most popular e-cigarette in the country, capturing 72% of market share by the end of 2018. During the same period, use of e-cigarettes among teens skyrocketed.
In his opening remarks to the subcommittee members, Juul Labs CEO K.C. Crosthwaite outlined steps the company has taken to address the rise in youth use, including stopping broadcast, print, and digital advertising; and voluntarily restricting the sale of flavors other than menthol and tobacco.
Formerly an executive with tobacco giant Altria, which holds a large equity stake in Juul, Crosthwaite took charge last September, replacing longtime CEO Kevin Burns.
“Clearly we still have a long way to go. Underage use rates remain unacceptably high, but we believe this challenge can and must be met,” he said. “It threatens the entire harm reduction opportunity represented by vapor products, and that opportunity is too important to lose.”
Crosthwaite claimed company research indicates that most adult smokers who try Juul products “are able to successfully transition completely off of cigarettes.” He promised to provide this research to FDA investigators in the company’s premarket tobacco product applications, which must be filed by May 11 of this year.
Other vaping company executives, however, suggested Juul alone is to blame for the dramatic increase in youth e-cigarette use, albeit without mentioning the company by name.
Logic Technology Development president Jerry Loftin said his company, which also markets a prefilled closed system e-cigarette, has consistently worked to prevent youth access to its products.
“We have made every effort to market our products with controls in place aimed at preventing youth appeal and access,” he said. “We did this not because it was mandated by law or because we were facing lawsuits or because we generated bad publicity with our products or marketing. We did it because its the right thing to do.”
“We don’t suggest that our products are cessation devices. We have not and do not use influencers to convince children or adults to try our products. We’re not evangelists claiming to offer a cure for smoking,” he said, an apparent reference to Juul’s marketing. “Other companies have caused tremendous damage to the reputations of this category by putting America’s youth in harms way.”
Reynolds American CEO Ricardo Oberlander told the committee members that 95% of users of his company’s e-cigarettes are over age 25 and 70% are over 35. Reynolds markets the VUSE line of vaping products.
“When VUSE was the market leader in 2017, youth vaping rates actually declined,” he said, adding that the most recent National Youth Tobacco Survey results confirm that VUSE is not popular among teens.
But following the opening remarks, Energy and Commerce chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) was highly critical of all five company executives testifying at the hearing, even questioning their integrity.
“If you wanted to be men of integrity and responsible men you would not be selling this product. You would be selling something else,” he said, adding that he did not believe “for one minute” that any of the companies represented on the panel did not target underage users in their marketing.
“But you are not going to admit that,” he said.
“I continue to be alarmed by the rapid increase in the number of young people who are using your products,” he continued. “Youth interest and curiosity in e-cigarettes stems not only from availability and kid-friendly flavors, but also from the persuasive and targeted marketing tactics which are not dissimilar to those used by Big Tobacco decades ago. Instead of Joe Camel, e-cigarette companies have used social media to convince consumers that these products will make them cool.”
Pallone asked if Juul had any controls in place to prevent its marketing from reaching young people when the product was introduced. Crosthwaite replied that he did not know because he was not yet at the company.
Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) cited recent survey data from Johns Hopkins University showing that from 2016 to 2018 the number of adult nonsmokers who began using e-cigarettes doubled in the U.S. as evidence that teens are not the only ones being harmed by the products.
The survey found that 6 million adults who had not previously been exposed to nicotine were exposed through the products.
“That’s 6 million people that you claim were not the target market audience for your products,” Kennedy said.
Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.) noted that Juul’s 5% nicotine content pod has been touted by the company as releasing as much nicotine as a pack of 20 combustible cigarettes.
“Some young users report going through a single Juul pod in 3 hours,” she said. “To try to reduce their nicotine intake some young people report turning to combustible cigarettes.”
Kuster noted that her state is dealing with an opioid epidemic “that began with misleading marketing and lack of regulatory oversight…. My fear is that we are repeating those same mistakes and making way for a new generation grappling with an addiction that we all fought to avoid.”
Last Updated February 05, 2020