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February 16, 2022

Judge Rules in Favor of Altria and Juul in Antitrust Case

Update July 3, 2023
The FTC today formally dismissed its anti-trust complaint against Juul Labs and Altria Group, which the commission had continued to pursue despite the administrative law judge's decision described in this article.

Before dismissing the complaint, the commission vacated the judge's February 2022 decision to prevent it from being cited as precedent.

The decision to finally drop the case came after Altria ended its business relationship with Juul in March 2023, trading its remaining stake to Juul for rights to some intellectual property.

Update Feb. 24
Today the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) officially announced Chief Administrative Law Judge D. Michael Chappell's decision to dismiss the FTC antitrust complaint against Altria Group and Juul Labs. The announcement contains a link to the judge's decision---a 270-page document that includes many previously unpublished details about the negotiations between Altria and Juul that led to Altria's investment in the e-cig company.

Feb. 16, 2022
A judge has ruled that antitrust laws were not violated when Altria Group bought a 35 percent share in Juul Labs in 2018. The decision dismisses claims by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that Altria and Juul engaged in anticompetitive practices.

Just before buying into Juul Labs, Altria shut down sales of its own vapor brands MarkTen and Green Smoke. The FTC alleged that Juul made Altria’s investment contingent on first eliminating Altria’s competing products. But Altria said that after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on MarkTen, it was unable to produce a product customers liked, and that—along with regulatory pressures—accounted for the decision to shut down MarkTen.

The preliminary decision by Chief Administrative Law Judge D. Michael Chappell came after a trial held last year. FTC commissioners will vote on whether to appeal the verdict in federal court. Altria announced the ruling Tuesday, noting that a written decision will be publicly available later this month.

Altria bought a 35 percent share of Juul Labs for $12.8 billion in December 2018. Since that time, the value of Altria’s investment has been written down by the company and now stands at just $1.7 billion. Juul’s valuation has dropped from $38 billion to its current value of less than $5 billion (although different sources disagree on the valuation).

If the judge had ruled for the FTC, Altria would have been forced to “unwind” its Juul Labs investment, potentially recovering just pennies on the dollar. Selling a large chunk of Juul Labs—a private company—might be difficult in the current environment. The company is in the process of fighting thousands of lawsuits, many of which have been consolidated in a large multi-district litigation (MDL) case that includes various personal injury, illegal marketing, and even racketeering claims against the company and some of its directors.

Aside from legal challenges, Juul also faces the chance that the FDA will not authorize the sales of its products, which are still under review by the agency.

Smokers created vaping without help from the tobacco industry or anti-smoking crusaders, and I believe vapers have the right to continue innovating to help themselves. My goal is to provide clear, honest information about the challenges vaping faces from lawmakers, regulators, and brokers of disinformation. I’m a member of the CASAA board, but my opinions aren’t necessarily CASAA’s, and vice versa. You can find me on Twitter @whycherrywhy
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