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It’s not often that the CEO of a company that’s doing well sends an apology to its customers but that’s exactly what Kevin Burns, CEO of e-cigarette maker Juul Labs, just did. During a filmed tour of his factory, he issued an apology to the parents whose teenaged children use his company’s products. He added: “I hope there was nothing that we did that made it appealing to them.”
Speaking to CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla as part of the network’s documentary, “Vaporized: America’s E-Cigarette Addiction,” Burns said, “I’m sorry that their child is using the product. It’s not intended for them.”
“As a parent to a 16-year-old, I’m sorry for them and have empathy for them and the challenges that they’re going through,” he continued.
A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that more than 2 million middle school and high school students vaped in 2017, making e-cigarettes the most consumed form of tobacco among American youth.
Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb even warned in December that e-cigarette use among teens is at an “epidemic proportion.”
Last fall, the FDA thought of banning sales of fruit- and candy-flavored e-cigarettes at gas stations and convenience stores but stopped short after Juul voluntarily stopped selling the majority of its flavored pods in retail stores. The company went further by also suspending social media promotions.
San Francisco, home of Juul Labs, implemented a total ban on the sale of e-cigarettes.
Adam Bowen, Juul co-founder, admitted the “inappropriate” nature of the company’s initial advertising.
He told CNBC, “When we launched Juul, we had a campaign that was arguably too … lifestyle-oriented, too flashy. It lasted less than six months. It was in the early days of the product introduction. We think it had no impact on sales.”
Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, was not impressed with Burn’s apology, describing it as “a blatant attempt to deflect attention from the company’s wrongdoing.”
“This is one more example that Juul is more interested in repairing its image and expanding its sales than preventing youth use,” he said in a statement. “Juul is following the tobacco industry’s playbook to the letter: Addict kids, deny responsibility for doing so, run slick PR campaigns to fool policymakers and the public, and fight real solutions to the problem.”
Juul’s e-cigarette is a market leader in the US but now says that it’s exclusively targeting adults looking for an alternative to tobacco cigarettes. The company also said it supports raising the minimum age for smoking to 21.
Burns also admitted that the health effects of vaping are not fully known.
“We have not done the long-term, longitudinal clinical testing that we need to do,” he said.
Compared to traditional tobacco products, e-cigarettes have fewer toxic chemicals. However, they usually contain more nicotine, the same addictive substance found in regular tobacco products.
For instance, each Juul pod has the equivalent amount of nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes. Even products that have been labeled “nicotine-free” were found to be positive for nicotine, the CDC said.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse said there were also other risks: “A study of some e-cigarette products found the vapor contains known carcinogens and toxic chemicals, as well as potentially toxic metal nano-particles from the device itself. More research is needed on the health consequences of repeated exposure to these chemicals.”