Health and Science

FDA chief Scott Gottlieb blames vaping giant Juul for 'epidemic' of teens using e-cigarettes

Key Points
  • FDA's Scott Gottlieb says much of the teenage use of e-cigs is being driven by one manufacturer — Juul.
  • The FDA ordered five vape brands to submit plans to discourage teen use of their products within 60 days.
FDA's Gottlieb on threat to pull e-cigarettes from shelves

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb singled out vaping giant Juul on Thursday for what he called an epidemic of high school students using e-cigarettes.

Gottlieb pointed the finger at Juul a day after the Food and Drug Administration ordered the vaping giant and four other brands to submit plans to discourage teen use of their products within 60 days.

In an interview with CNBC's "Squawk Box," Gottlieb said much of the teenage use of vapes or e-cigs is being driven by Juul. "I think we need to acknowledge that," he said.

In response, a Juul spokeswoman said the products are intended for adult smokers only and "no minor or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL."

"Our packaging includes a prominent nicotine label and clearly states for adult smokers," she said. "We are committed to preventing underage use of our product, and we want to be part of the solution in keeping e-cigarettes out of the hands of young people."

Gottlieb told CNBC the FDA will soon publicly release new data showing the proportion of high school teenagers using e-cigarettes has "reached nothing short of an epidemic."

Sales of Juul products have skyrocketed, helping the company capture a 72 percent of share of the market, according to Nielsen data. The San Francisco-based company sold $1.29 billion in vape kits and nicotine pods during the 12 months that ended Aug. 11 — more than half of the $2.31 billion for the entire category, according to Nielsen data cited by Wells Fargo analyst Bonnie Herzog.

On Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration ordered Juul and four other brands — Vuse, MarkTen, blu e-cigs, and Logic — to submit plans to discourage teen use of their products within 60 days.

Their products, available in sweet flavors, are popular with young people who can hide the sleek devices from parents and teachers.

Gottlieb said Thursday the agency hasn't heard a direct response from any of the manufacturers but when they do respond, he will "hear them out over the next 60 days before we take action."

"I'm keeping an open eye to see what the manufacturers are willing to do," Gottlieb said, adding he has "strong support" from Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar.

Gottlieb previously served as a senior policy advisor for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President George W. Bush.

In 2016, more than 2 million U.S. middle and high school students used e-cigarettes over a 30 day period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC cautions that nicotine exposure can harm adolescents' brain development.

The FDA in March made good on a promise and issued a formal notice of proposed rulemaking for maximum nicotine levels for traditional and e-cigarettes. The agency, at the time, said it was seeking input on what that level should be and guidance on whether to implement that new standard all at once or gradually.

Gottlieb said Thursday the agency has long commended e-cigarettes for their potential to move adults away from combustible products. "But it cannot come at the expense of hooking a whole generation of kids on to nicotine and eventually onto tobacco products," he said.