Executives at Juul knew early on that young people were attracted to its addictive vaping products, but overlooked it, according to a report Tuesday amid a widening national health crisis.
A Reuters investigation found that from the birth of the e-cigarette company, insiders discussed and debated concerns over the products’ potency and addictiveness.
The first signs that Juul had a serious appeal to young people came almost immediately after the e-cigarette device went on sale in 2015, an ex-company manager told Reuters.
An onslaught of teens called company reps asking where they could buy more Juuls and their disposable pods containing liquid nicotine.
The inquiries sparked an internal debate at the company, the former manager, speaking to the news outlet on the condition of anonymity, said.
Juul co-founder James Monsees was among the executives who argued for swift action to limit youth sales, but other company directors, including healthcare entrepreneur Hoyoung Huh and other investors argued that they could not be blamed for youth nicotine addiction because it did not intentionally advertise or sell to them, the manager said.
“Clearly, people internally had an issue with it,” the manager told Reuters in reference to the sales of Juuls to teens. “But a lot of people had no problem with 500 percent year-over-year growth.”
In a statement, Juul told Reuters that it never intended to attract underage customers and said that Monsees “did not recall” the internal discussions in 2015 over whether to take action to curb youth sales.
Huh and other board members who served at the time did not respond to requests for comment by Reuters.
The Reuters report noted that following pressure from regulators and US senators, Juul, in April 2018, announced what it called a “comprehensive strategy” to curtail youth sales.
The measures the company took came two days after the US Food and Drug Administration announced a nationwide crackdown on underage sales of Juul products.
Asked by Reuters why Juul did not act sooner when it committed $30 million for youth prevention efforts, Juul said it took two measures to curb youth sales in August and September 2017.
The company notes that it raised the minimum age for online purchases through Juul’s website to 21 and started a “retail monitoring program.”
Juul “reacted to the information that it had, and increased its youth prevention measures as more data came out over the years,” the company told Reuters.
Despite its usage of young and hip-looking people in previous advertisements, the vaping company’s Chief Administration Officer Ashley Gould told CNN last year that “we were completely surprised by the youth usage of the product.”
Meanwhile, two prominent tobacco researchers told Reuters that they warned Juul’s founders and a top company scientist about the potential for youth e-cigarette abuse.
Neal Benowitz, a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco told the news outlet that he told Gal Cohen, Juul’s director of scientific affairs that rampant teen use could wreak havoc on the company.
“Look, the one thing you have to do is make sure that this doesn’t get into the hands of young people,” Benowitz recalled telling Cohen about a year after the product launch. “If it spreads among kids, this product could be dead.”
Juul declined to comment to Reuters on whether tobacco researchers warned company officials about youth e-cigarette addiction.
In September, the Trump administration announced a proposed ban on flavored e-cigarettes.
Last month, Juul stopped selling all its fruity flavored products nationwide amid the national health crisis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Oct. 29, there have been 1,888 cases of e-cigarette or vaping product use linked to lung injury and 37 deaths have been confirmed in 24 states.