JUUL has been raided! The stories began Tuesday, and continued pouring in at least 24 hours. Some of the news outlets that reported a “raid” at JUUL Labs’ San Francisco headquarters included People, Fortune, NBC (on the Today Show), the Washington Times, CBS This Morning, Bloomberg.com, ABC News, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Daily Beast, and (no kidding) COED.com.
Other news sources skipped the word “raid,” but reported that the FDA had “seized” documents from JUUL. The New York Times, CNBC, NPR, the Daily Mail, San Francisco Weekly,and Gizmodo mentioned seizures. In fact, Gizmodo first said JUUL was raided, and then modified its headline, probably after vapers on social media laughed at the dramatic description of what was nothing more than an an unscheduled FDA inspection.
The articles provided some laughs on Twitter, but they also illustrate a serious problem with vaping coverage in the mainstream media.
It appears that what happened last Friday was a typical “tobacco manufacturer inspection,” something every vaping business registered with the FDA as a manufacturer can expect within the next year. They’re always a surprise; the inspectors don’t make an appointment. As for the “seizures,” well, they probably just made copies.
An email sent Tuesday to reporters from an FDA media contact was far less hyperbolic than the articles it inspired. “As part of FDA’s ongoing efforts to prevent youth use of tobacco products, particularly e-cigarettes, last week the agency conducted an unannounced on-site inspection of e-cigarette manufacturer JUUL Labs’ corporate headquarters,” wrote a spokesperson.
“The JUUL inspection, which we completed on Friday, sought further documentation related to JUUL’s sales and marketing practices, among other things, and resulted in the collection of over a thousand pages of documents,” added the FDA media contact. “Earlier this year, FDA also conducted inspections of several of JUUL’s contract manufacturing facilities. The purpose of these inspections was to determine compliance with all applicable FDA laws and regulatory requirements.”
No raid, no seizures. But JUUL is under a microscope now, and every event at the company merits widespread — and often wildly inaccurate — coverage. Both CBS and NBC claimed that a recent report from the CDC said that JUUL sold 16.2 million “devices” in 2017, when in fact that paper described “unit sales of e-cigarette products,” which would include far more refills than devices. The implication by the reporters was that there are 16 million individual people who own a JUUL.
The stories illustrate a problem common to almost all JUUL and vaping coverage in mainstream news outlets: reporters and editors don’t understand the products, the industry, or the people who use vapor products. And they don’t seem to show any curiosity at all. Most simply trust that the FDA knows what it’s doing.
That makes it easy for juuling myths and misinformation to spread rapidly, especially when helped along by tobacco control groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids who may push the stories to editors and offer quotes from their leaders, who are considered expert sources by reporters with little knowledge of the history of tobacco regulation and zero knowledge of the vaping industry.
That’s exactly how the local stories about juuling teens turned into a self-sustaining moral panic. They were planted and encouraged by anti-vaping activists like TFK, and medical and drug treatment organizations. That’s how you build something that even the FDA commissioner describes as an “epidemic.”
JUUL Labs was downright blasé. “The meetings last week with FDA gave us the opportunity to provide information about our business from our marketing practices to our industry-leading online age-verification protocols to our youth prevention efforts. It was a constructive and transparent dialogue,” said the company’s public statement.
Last month the FDA gave JUUL Labs 60 days to show the agency how it would prevent teen use, and earlier this year the FDA demanded to see “documents related to product marketing; research on the health, toxicological, behavioral or physiologic effects of the products, including youth initiation and use; whether certain product design features, ingredients or specifications appeal to different age groups; and youth-related adverse events and consumer complaints associated with the products.”
JUUL Labs has appeared to be compliant and cooperative with the FDA, and that may be a problem in itself. If they’re willing to agree that there is a huge problem with teen juuling — and they seem to be willing — what else will they concede? According to JUUL Labs co-founder James Monsees, they might be willing to make the biggest sacrifice of all to earn the FDA’s approval.
Asked in a TechCrunch interview why JUUL doesn’t “just get rid of” flavored e-liquids, Monsees said eliminating flavors was “on the table.” He qualified his statement, saying they haven’t seen evidence proving flavors have led to teenage use. But it’s still there.
What would happen to the rest of the independent American vaping industry if JUUL adopts the language of prohibitionists who demand all flavors be banned, and what would happen if JUUL voluntarily eliminates flavors? The pressure on the FDA to ban flavors industry-wide would be immense — even worse than the pressure the agency is feeling now. And remember, they’re already working on it.
The next year or two will be the most uncertain and challenging time for vaping since 2010. And much of the U.S. vaping industry’s future will be determined by the choices made by this self-described tech company that doesn’t seem to want to be the vaping industry leader. Stay tuned.