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Lawmakers blast Juul over the company's role in teen vaping 'epidemic'

Key Points
  • A House subcommittee is examining Juul's alleged role in the teen vaping "epidemic" in a two-day hearing.
  • Juul makes the market-leading e-cigarette. Some blame the surge in teen vaping on Juul.
  • Witnesses testified about Juul's advertising and teens' addiction to the products.
A JUUL vape 
Brianna Soukup | Portland Press Herald | Getty Images

Lawmakers blasted Juul for its alleged role in fueling a teen vaping "epidemic," calling the company's tactics "right out of the tobacco playbook" and eager to understand what makes Juul's e-cigarettes "so attractive to teenagers."

A federal survey found nearly 21% — or 3 million — U.S. high school students vaped last year. Some, including former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, blame the surge in teen e-cigarette use on Juul, which makes the market-leading product.

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform's Economic and Consumer Policy subcommittee is examining Juul's marketing and health claims in a two-part hearing on Wednesday and Thursday titled "Examining Juul's Role in the Youth Nicotine Epidemic."

The committee's chairman, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., said he wants to understand what makes Juul's devices "so attractive to teens," listing possibilities like the device's small size and lack of odor making it easy to hide.

"In fact, I've had one in my hand during this entire statement," he said, revealing a Juul device.

Krishnamoorthi said Juul so far "hasn't provided satisfactory answers" to his questions.

"It is my sincere hope that our hearings today and tomorrow will help us better understand Juul's role in this terrible epidemic and point us toward solutions to prevent teen vaping addiction," he said.

A Juul spokesman said in a statement that the company shares the committee's "concerns about youth vaping and welcomes the opportunity to appear and share information about our commitment to eliminate combustible cigarettes and our aggressive, industry leading actions to combat youth usage." In response to criticism of the company's product design, he said Juul's founders used their experiences as smokers to "engineer a product that would help adults switch from combustible cigarettes."

At the hearing, Stanford professor Robert Jackler displayed Juul advertisements, particularly from the company's launch campaign. Called "vaporized," the campaign is frequently criticized for using bright colors and attractive models to promote Juul as a trendy lifestyle product.

"We know very well having studied tobacco advertising that Juul's marketing faithfully recapitulates the methods used by the tobacco industry to target young people," Jackler said.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., asked Jackler whether Juul's marketing aligns with its stated mission to "improve the lives of the world's 1 billion smokers." Jackler said the first few years of advertisements did not, though the company has pivoted over the past year amid pressure from regulators and investors.

"It always leads to profits," Tlaib said.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., called Juul's tactics "right out of the Big Tobacco playbook." She applauded Massachusetts lawmakers weighing a ban on flavors, which some argue mask the harsh taste of nicotine and attract kids to the products.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., testified that he had hoped that e-cigarettes could help adult smokers quit, having watched his own father die from lung cancer after smoking two packs of Camel cigarettes a day. However, he said Wednesday that "there is no proof" and that instead, e-cigarettes are causing children to become addicted to nicotine "at far greater rates than they're helping adults quit smoking cigarettes."

Durbin slammed Juul placing ads in major newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post, calling it a "PR campaign."

"Make no mistake, Juul, now partnered with tobacco giant Altria, is driving this epidemic even as they come before this committee and pose for holy pictures," he said, referring to Marlboro-maker Altria paying $12.8 billion for a 35% stake in Juul late last year.

Meredith Berkman, co-founder of Parents Against Vaping, at the hearing urged lawmakers "to hold Juul accountable for its deceptive marketing practices." Her son Caleb Mintz and his friend Philip Fuhrman testified about how a Juul representative gave an anti-vaping presentation at their school.

They said the presenter told students that "Juul is safe." They said classmates who already vaped breathed "a sigh of relief." They said the Juul representative also said, "We don't want you as customers." Juul abandoned its anti-vaping school curriculum last year amid backlash.

Republican committee members appeared more sympathetic.

Ranking member Michael Cloud, R-Texas, urged the committee to recognize how challenging quitting smoking can be and that e-cigarettes might provide an alternative. He cited studies suggesting e-cigarettes are safer than combustible cigarettes and can help smokers quit better than traditional smoking cessation products.

"We must recognize the potential for innovation to lead to less harmful products," Cloud said.

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., said he thinks "the industry has tried to do things to curb underage smoking." Juul and cigarette giants Altria and British American Tobacco support raising the smoking age to 21. Comer said he supports Sen. Mitch McConnell's bill to raise the federal smoking age.

Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., asked why in America, which "at least we're told is supposed to be a free country," people are not wanting to allow people to use e-cigarettes.

Juul executives will testify Thursday.