The CEO of Juul Labs apologised to parents of teenagers who use his e-cigarette products during a filmed tour of his factory, adding: “I hope there was nothing that we did that made it appealing to them.”
“I’m sorry that their child is using the product. It’s not intended for them,” Kevin Burns told CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla in a video clip released from the network’s documentary, “Vaporized: America’s E-Cigarette Addiction,” which premieres Monday night.
“As a parent to a 16-year-old, I’m sorry for them and have empathy for them and the challenges that they’re going through,” he continued.
E-cigarettes are the most commonly used form of tobacco among youth in the United States. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that more than 2 million high school and middle school students vaped in 2017.
Scott Gottlieb, then-commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, warned in December that teen e-cigarette use has reached an “epidemic proportion.”
In an effort to reduce underage use, the FDA considered banning the sale of fruit- and candy-flavored e-cigarettes in convenience stores and gas stations last fall. After Juul suspended sales of most of its flavored pods in retail stores, the FDA did not implement the ban. The company also said it would discontinue social media promotions.
San Francisco, where Juul Labs is based, has banned the sale of e-cigarettes altogether.
Juul co-founder Adam Bowen has admitted that initial advertising used by the company was “inappropriate.”
“When we launched Juul, we had a campaign that was arguably too ... lifestyle-oriented, too flashy,” he told CNBC. “It lasted less than six months. It was in the early days of the product introduction. We think it had no impact on sales.”
Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, dismissed Burn’s apology on Monday, calling it “a blatant attempt to deflect attention from the company’s wrongdoing.”
“This is one more example that Juul is more interested in repairing its image and expanding its sales than preventing youth use,” he said in a statement. “Juul is following the tobacco industry’s playbook to the letter: Addict kids, deny responsibility for doing so, run slick PR campaigns to fool policy makers and the public, and fight real solutions to the problem.”
The company, which produces the best-selling e-cigarette in the U.S., says it now markets its products exclusively to adults who want an alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes, and has expressed support for raising the minimum smoking age to 21.
Burns acknowledged that there’s still much to learn about the health effects of vaping.
“We have not done the long-term, longitudinal clinical testing that we need to do,” he said.
Though e-cigarettes contain fewer toxic chemicals than their traditional tobacco counterparts, they often include more nicotine, the addictive drug found in regular cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products.
The amount of nicotine in each Juul pod, for instance, is equivalent to the amount in an entire pack of cigarettes. And according to the CDC, some products claiming to be “nicotine free” have tested positive for nicotine.
There are other risks too.
“A study of some e-cigarette products found the vapor contains known carcinogens and toxic chemicals, as well as potentially toxic metal nanoparticles from the device itself,” according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. “More research is needed on the health consequences of repeated exposure to these chemicals.”
This story has been updated to include a response from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misreported that the FDA successfully banned the sale of flavored pods. A full ban was not implemented by the FDA. Instead, Juul suspended these pods’ sales in retail stores.