N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein has launched an investigation into Juul, a fast-growing e-cigarette company, but a consumer freedom expert warns the attempted crackdown could backfire.

The attorney general’s office Oct. 15 sent to Juul a “civil investigative demand” in search of information on its marketing practices, retailers, contact with resellers, efforts to verify age before purchase, and any youth education or awareness programs. The company has until Nov. 14 to comply.

“The use of e-cigarettes among young people is increasing at staggering rates,” Stein says in a news release. “Juul dominates the market. I am extremely concerned about the way Juul has marketed its product to young people, who face increased risk for addiction and exposure to health problems.”
Juul controls more than 70 percent of the e-cigarette market in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report Juul’s sales have risen 641 percent — from 2.2 million devices sold in 2016 to 16.2 million in 2017.

“Our priority is the same as Attorney General Stein’s — to keep nicotine products out of the hands of young people,” Kevin Burns, JUUL Labs CEO, wrote in an emailed statement. “Underage use of JUUL and any other vaping products is completely unacceptable to us and is directly opposed to our mission of eliminating cigarettes by offering existing adult smokers a true alternative to combustible cigarettes.”

Stein’s office also requested information on how many North Carolinians are using Juul.

Guy Bentley, director of consumer freedom research at the Reason Foundation, said the federal and state crackdowns on e-cigarettes may be well-intentioned but are largely misinformed.

For one, Bentley said, calling e-cigarette use an epidemic isn’t accurate, especially considering how vaping helps people quit smoking combustible cigarettes. It’s important to prevent underaged people from buying and using these products, but trying to prevent all users  — including people trying to quit cigarettes — from using e-cigarettes goes too far.

“We’ve got the lowest high school smoking rate and we’ve got the lowest adult smoking rate ever. Everything is going in the right direction,” Bentley said. “So, yes, make sure young people can’t get ahold of these things as much as you can, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater here, it’s just a gift to traditional cigarette companies.”

Stein isn’t alone in his investigation. On Sept. 29, the Food and Drug Administration seized thousands of documents in a surprise inspection of Juul’s headquarters. The FDA has expressed an interest in whether the company is purposefully targeting teenagers.

Those concerned about e-cigarette use have argued Juul and other e-cigarette companies are targeting their marketing efforts at minors, and thus attracting them with fruit and dessert flavors.

“This is wildly out of proportion and overblown,”Bentley said. “Because, let’s say the marketing practices for one thing, almost all e-cigarette marketing is considered aggressive and appealing to youth. But that’s really not the purpose at all. You want a product to be as attractive as possible to its intended audience, which is adult smokers, but you also want the product to be attractive on its own.”

Bentley said it’s impossible to develop an ad campaign appealing to a young-adult smoker that won’t also appeal to an underaged smoker.

As for the flavors, Bentley said it’s ridiculous to suggest flavors appeal solely to young people.

“Cigarettes in particular become somewhat repellent to you — the taste of burning tobacco — because you’re using these different flavors and you have the ability to change and use different flavors,” Bentley said. “It makes the experience more enjoyable and it puts up a sort of roadblock or barrier in your way to relapsing.”

Bentley said it would be unethical for an e-cigarette company to intentionally market to children. It also would be easy for regulatory agencies to catch and to stop. E-cigarette companies, Bentley said, are going after adult smokers, as Juul is competing with big tobacco.

“Every action you take to degrade the appeal of e-cigarettes relative to cigarettes obviously just protects the incumbent cigarette market and makes it less attractive for a smoker to switch to vaping,” Bentley said.