The FDA Wants to Ban Juul
Leaked reports from the FDA show the regulator aims to ban Juul products. Hate the company all you want, but public health is more important.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is preparing to order Juul Labs Inc. to take its popular USB-stick looking e-cigarettes off the market in the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal. This move also comes on the heels of the FDA wanting to reduce the levels of nicotine in cigarettes to try and help cut down on smoking more broadly.
Tobacco use, mostly combustible cigarettes, killed an estimated 500,000 Americans in 2020, about the same number as the Covid-19 pandemic killed in one year. (There is no tobacco in e-cigarettes, to be clear). It is estimated that more than one billion cigarette smokers will die prematurely across the globe in the 21st century, making smoking tobacco one of the deadliest habits on the planet.
While the Juul news did come as a surprise, it is also a long time coming. Juul, like so many other companies founded in San Francisco by former Stanford students, engaged in brazen and cynical hypercapitalist schemes to corner and disrupt a multibillion dollar market. Juul was sucessful, a little too successful. The 2010s San Francisco venture capital mantra of infinite growth, ethics be damned, probably wasn’t smart to apply to an addictive product like nicotine.
Caught out over their skis, Juul attracted attention from all the wrong people.
Around 2018, Regulators at the FDA, federal and state lawmakers, state attorneys, and even President Donald Trump, zeroed in on Juul after reports came out that the company was marketing its product to young people as a hip and sleek alternative to smelly, gross, and deadly combustible cancer sticks. The names of some of Juul’s flavored pods brought them heat: Fruit Medley, Cool Cucumber, Crème Brûlée, and the super popular, Mango.
Jull violated the one big takeaway from the 1990s multibillion dollar lawsuit against Big Tobacco: DO NOT MARKET NICOTINE TO KIDS.
After new reports documented a surge in teenage vaping, Juul pulled its flavors from the market but for tobacco and menthol. Though some cities and states even banned menthol, leaving only tobacco flavor on shelves. Of course, you can still buy menthol flavored cigarettes in those states. 🙃🙃🙃🙃🙃
It’s worth noting that all this happened right around the time of a deadly lung injury outbreak (called EVALI) that was traced back to illicit THC cartridges that were contaminated with vitamin E acetate. This outbreak was broadly conflated with the “youth vaping epidemic.” Juul pods, to be sure, did not cause this deadly lung injury, but a lot of people thought they did thanks to a ton of bad journalism and well-funded anti-vaping advocates cynically hijacking a public health crisis for their own agenda. The EVALI outbreak fit perfectly with their “See, we told you e-cigs were dangerous!” narrative, even though the outbreak was caused by THC cartidges sold on the street.
For all of its faults, Juul has complied with the FDA at every step, pulling their flavors and cooperating with regulators while a confluence of factors aligned against them. As Filter Mag’s Alex Norcia notes, youth vaping has declined in the years since Juul stopped their marketing and pulled their flavors, and teens seem to prefer disposable e-cigs now anyway, not Juul.
Now the FDA, according to these leaked reports, is going to kill the company. So what are we to make of all this and the loud crusade for an all out e-cig prohibition?
Pulling e-cigarettes from the shelves while leaving cigarettes (combustible tobacco products) virtually untouched is truly bad public health policy. Here’s what I mean by that:
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