E-cigarette giant Juul is already facing a massive backlash from allegations it intentionally advertised to underage users and deployed deceptive marketing tactics. But its troubles may be growing much worse, with the Wall Street Journal reporting on Monday that federal prosecutors are readying a “criminal probe” into the company.
The Journal report contained few details, other than that the U.S. attorney’s office of the Northern District of California is behind the investigation and that it is only in its initial phases. The “focus” of the probe could not be ascertained. However, the paper noted that Juul is facing down multiple investigations already, including a Federal Trade Commission probe into whether it marketed to minors, a Food and Drug Administration inquiry “covering marketing and outreach as well as the high nicotine content of Juul’s refill pods,” and investigations by at least six state attorneys general:
A Juul spokesman had no immediate comment... A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office said he couldn’t confirm or deny an ongoing investigation.
Juul claims its products are intended only for adults to transition away from cigarette smoking. But its meteoric rise has been associated with skyrocketing rates of teen use, with the Centers for Disease Control releasing data showing over one in four U.S. high schoolers have used a vape in the past month, and its $12.8 billion deal to sell a minority stake to tobacco titan Altria hasn’t exactly helped its image. Juul has made changes, including shuttering its social media accounts and halting the sale of most of its flavors last year, but many users have simply switched to others still on the market like mint or turned to competitors (including knockoff Juul pods).
The U.S. vaping industry is also facing an existential threat as the CDC investigates hundreds of cases of vaping-associated pulmonary illness (VAPI) across the country that has killed at least nine people. Most, but not all, of the cases reportedly involved THC products that may have been cut with unsafe additives like Vitamin E acetate, rather than the nicotine products sold by companies like Juul. However, the CDC and other health authorities have warned that they have not determined a sole cause, and the VAPI and teen use issues have been somewhat conflated.
Consequences have already been major. The New York Department of Health issued an emergency ban on all vaping products with flavors other than tobacco or menthol this month, with authorities in Michigan implementing a similar ban. Walmart announced it would stop selling vaping products last week. Meanwhile, the only good news for Juul that seems to be coming down the pipeline is that the prospect of a federal ban on flavored e-cigarette products, floated by Donald Trump in the past few weeks, is reportedly being undermined by Republican pollsters who have warned the White House it could cause a political backlash.