U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has called for meetings with the chief executives of Juul and its big tobacco buddy Altria over teen vaping concerns, claiming that their $13 billion deal last year undermined promises they made to the agency about getting the dang teens off their products.
In letters respectively addressed to Juul CEO Kevin Burns and Altria CEO Howard A. Willard III this week, both were accused of contradicting agreements the companies had previously made with the agency during meetings in October. Both companies, Gottlieb said, should be ready to lay out in a joint meeting with the FDA exactly how Altria’s 35 percent minority stake in the vaping giant affects those prior commitments.
“I am aware of deeply concerning data showing that youth use of JUUL products represents a significant proportion of the overall use of e-cigarette products by children,” Gottlieb wrote. “I have no reason to believe these youth patterns of use are abating in the near term, and they certainly do not appear to be reversing.”
A Juul spokesperson told Gizmodo in a statement that the company was “as committed as ever to preventing underage use of electronic nicotine delivery systems.”
“We are moving full steam ahead on implementing our action plan to limit youth usage and this is unchanged since we announced our plan in November 2018,” the spokesperson added. “We look forward to a constructive dialogue with FDA as we keep our commitments to combat youth usage.”
The FDA chief said back in December that he planned to meet with the companies following the announcement that Juul had agreed to a deal with big tobacco—which, by way of some mental gymnastics, the company insists actually furthers Juul’s mission of getting adult smokers to make the switch to vaping. As TechCrunch noted, the deal gives Juul some of Altria’s display space in stores and will allow Juul to advertise through inserts in cigarettes packs.
Juul has consistently claimed that it is committed to keeping its products out of the hands of teens (even if it stands accused of advertising to them for years). Through agreements with the FDA, the company has pulled some flavored Juul pods from stores, killed some of its social media accounts, worked to boot teens from its website, and seriously overhauled the way that its products are being marketed. Even still, teen vaping continues to see a staggering spike.
Speaking at a public hearing last month, Gottlieb threatened that the entire e-cigarette industry could be in for a world of hurt if the trend continues.
“It could be ‘game over’ for some these products until they can successfully traverse the regulatory process,” Gottlieb said. “I think the stakes are that high. And would be a blow for all of the currently addicted adult smokers who, I believe, could potentially benefit from these products.”
Update 2/8/19 8:15 p.m. ET: A spokesperson for Altria issued the following statement to Gizmodo:
“We agree with the Commissioner that underage vaping has to be addressed. Both Altria and JUUL have taken significant steps that exceed what others in the industry have done and we remain committed to being part of the solution. For example, we are actively supporting efforts at the federal and state level to raise the minimum legal age to purchase all tobacco products to 21. We believe this is the most effective action to reverse rising underage e-vapor usage rates.”