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Federal regulators indicate that JUUL appears to be backing off of prior commitments to help reduce teen use of their e-cigarette products, after the major tobacco producer Altria acquired a 35% stake in the company.
The New York Times reports that FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb raised the concerns that JUUL may not hold to its agreement to help fight the increasing epidemic of teen vaping, after the deal with Altria was finalized last month.
In the announcement, Altria indicated it would give JUUL access to 230,000 retail outlets, as well as the rest of its marketing apparatus.
Altria Group said it was investing $12.8 million into JUUL, which will represent about 35% ownership in the company, and would allow JUUL to use its retail shelf space.
Gottlieb said this worries him, as JUUL indicated in November that it was pulling its vape flavor pods from more than 90,000 retail stores, as part of an “action plan” that also included shutting down its social media accounts.
JUUL vape pens have quickly grown to dominate the electronic cigarette market. In addition to the sale of candy-like flavors, the devices are designed to look like USB thumb drives, allowing teens to hide their vaping habit from parents, teachers and other adults.
The move to remove the JUUL pods from the market came days after stories circulated that indicated the FDA plans to ban all flavored e-cigarette products sometime this week.
After removing flavored JUUL pods from stores that were deemed to be attractive to kids, the company said it would continue to sell Virginia Tobacco, Classic Tobacco, Mint and Menthol flavored products.
Gottlieb says the agency was caught off-guard by the deal, and said he is drafting a letter to both companies, demanding they explain whether they are deviating from the original plan to reduce youth access to JUUL flavor pods. However, in its announcement, Altria indicated that only JUUL’s menthol and tobacco flavored products would be sold on its retail spaces, keeping the flavored products for online only, and officials from both companies say they believe Gottlieb misunderstood the details of their agreement.
Altria officials also say they did not buy controlling interest in JUUL and have no say over its decisions. JUUL officials say that the access to the new retail outlets will not affect its plans to prevent underage use, and that the merger will have no affect on the action plan it announced last year.
FDA Plan To Restrict Youth E-Cigarette Use
Shortly after JUUL announced its action plan in November, the FDA released its own plans to prevent teen use of electronic cigarettes. The plan called for all flavored electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), like JUUL pods and other vaping devices, be sold only in age-restricted, in-person locations. Online sales would only be done through heightened age-verification practices.
What locations will be affected remains unclear at this stage, but it could mean that flavored electronic cigarette products will only be sold in places where age-verification is required. Gottlieb has since told media outlets that the move would require retailers to put in place measures to ensure the products are not being sold to children.
Gottlieb also indicated that the agency is struggling to decide what to do about mint and menthol-flavored electronic cigarettes and other tobacco products. However, he indicated that the FDA will soon issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking to ban menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars.