A House subcommittee held a two-part hearing last week called “Examining JUUL’s Role in the Youth Nicotine Epidemic.” The title was a little off. The hearing probably should have been called, “JUUL Is Terrible and Should Go to Hell.” There sure wasn’t much examination.
The hearing was a circus—in the same sense that the Spanish Inquisition was a circus. The audience was packed full of teenagers, decked out in matching t-shirts showing their anti-vaping affiliations: Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, PAVe, and Truth Initiative. Before the show started, anti-vaping witnesses posed for pics outside the hearing room with the uniformed kids, who were then escorted by committee staff to their front-row seats past people who had waited in line.
Democrats vied to be the toughest on the vape company, often cutting off the JUUL witnesses (“Reclaiming my time!”) before they even had a chance to answer. And the Republicans seemed unprepared and not especially interested in being tagged as JUUL’s defenders. For the most part, none of the legislators seemed interested in hearing anything that challenged their preconceptions, or offering the JUUL execs time to explain any of their actions in detail.
The leadership of the Economic and Consumer Policy subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Committee gave away its purpose in advance, with a witness lineup that was clearly arranged by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, whose president Matt Meyers was given free rein to denounce JUUL and vaping in general during the final panel of the hearing. The hearing was packed full of witnesses hell bent on burning down the vaping industry.
On the first day, Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes (PAVe) founder Meredith Berkman shared the stage with three other dogmatic anti-vaping activists, including Dr. Jonathan Winickoff of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which (uncoincidentally) announced that same day its call for JUUL to be completely banned. The first panel contained one lone voice of reason, New York University College of Global Public Health professor (and former Truth Initiative scientist) Dr. Ray Niaura.
The second panel on day one was Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, all by himself, doggedly refighting the tobacco wars with JUUL standing in for the real tobacco companies. Day two had two panels: JUUL co-founder and chief product officer James Monsees alone, and then JUUL chief administration officer Ashley Gould and TFK’s Meyers seated together.
Although Niaura did his part, explaining that “If this is a type of product that is consumer friendly and is more apt to be used, then we ought to look for ways to leverage that opportunity,” and that we should be able to figure out how to both help smokers and prevent adolescent use, he was drowned out by a cacophony of JUUL hatred.
The teenage sons of the PAVe leaders were not listed as witnesses, but they too were sworn in to tell their stories of JUUL fever at their wealthy private school in Manhattan. Philip Fuhrman and Caleb Mintz testified that JUUL supplied a speaker to their school—to explain why kids shouldn’t vape—who told the kids repeatedly that JUUL was “totally safe.” The boys also claimed the school administrators and teachers left the students alone with the presenter, which seems unimaginable.
None of the members of the committee questioned the assertion, or bothered to suggest that maybe the PAVe activists should first be demanding the school’s leaders be fired. And no one asked why the PAVe people have never mentioned this damning event before. It’s hard to believe they’ve been holding this nugget for a year.
The Democratic members of the subcommittee were uniformly antagonistic to JUUL and vaping in general, proudly displaying their ignorance of the issue, and embarrassing themselves by comparing JUUL to the tobacco industry in its pre-regulated heyday. On day two, some high-profile members of the full committee even put in appearances to take turns berating JUUL’s Monsees.
In fact, Monsees was a poor choice for a witness. His fumbling, slow delivery, and lack of knowledge about many topics the Dems wanted to discuss was frustrating to everyone, including vapers watching and discussing on Twitter. “Monsees started out strong but now I just wanna be like “tag me in bro!”,” tweeted YouTube reviewer Matt Culley.
Of course, that may partly have been a strategy. If you speak slowly and spend a lot of time plodding around to formulate an answer, you’ll get fewer questions. There was also the looming threat of perjury, of course, which he was reminded of more than once. Why the company’s CEO Kevin Burns was not allowed to testify remains a mystery—including to Monsees, who noted that Burns would have been a better choice. It is typically the chief executive that is called to answer before Congressional hearings. But the Democrats wanted Monsees.
There’s nothing quite like watching powerful people puff themselves up like fighting cats and howl in outrage at something they simply don’t understand. Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib—one of the so-called “Squad” of freshman progressives—was especially embarrassing. She joined in with the old-school Democrats she usually treats with skepticism, and went after JUUL just like a young Dick Durbin hungry for some sweet pharma PAC money. Obviously her staff, and whichever Tobacco-Free Kids rep prepped the Democrats, had filled her with righteous anti-vaping anger.
But it is misplaced anger, because Tlaib’s district, which includes most of Detroit and parts of its working class suburbs, doesn’t have a juuling problem. This is an area that needs JUUL, and other alternatives to cigarettes. In Rep. Tlaib’s district, a real leader would be embracing harm reduction, rather than cozying up to the one-percenter moms from PAVe. But instead the Detroit Congresswoman told wealthy socialite Berkman that “I just want you to know you have the truth on your side. And just be stronger for that.”
The JUUL co-founder served mostly as a piñata for the blindfolded Democrats to whack with glee. The whole spectacle should serve as a lesson to the vape company that thinks it’s a cool tech startup. As vapers warned JUUL early last year, supporting Tobacco 21 and other attempts to restrict access to vaping products gains them no respect from anti-tobacco ideologues. JUUL’s appeasement strategy didn’t help Monsees, and it never will.
“I want to tell you, I’ve been involved in public health for a long time in the Bay Area,” California Rep. Mark DeSaulnier hissed at Monsees. “You, sir, are an example to me of the worst of the Bay Area. You don’t ask for permission, you ask for forgiveness. You’re nothing but a marketer of a poison, and your target is young people.”
JUUL’s target really isn’t young people, but the company is an easy mark for such an accusation. Who in the vaping (or tobacco) world in this century would think it’s smart or acceptable to launch a school anti-vaping curriculum? Aside from setting themselves up for the grandstanding heard at this hearing, it shows a remarkable lack of knowledge about the history of tobacco industry hijinks and no appreciation for the industry they’re part of.
“Juul went into a ninth-grade classroom and called its device ‘totally safe,’ teens testify,” ran the CNN headline before the second day of testimony had even begun.
Rather than scoring brownie points by appeasing legislators and tobacco control, like JUUL expected would happen, the company’s support for T21 and its claims that other vape companies’ flavors are “child-appealing” have essentially left it with no friends. There are few in the independent vaping industry that felt any sympathy for JUUL, even while they watched the House subcommittee’s crucifixion of its inventor in horror.
The vaping industry doesn’t have any real friends in Congress either—at least not any that are willing to work hard at pushing legislation that will help. It’s not a partisan issue, but even if it were, Republicans are at best lukewarm about defending the manufacturers of vapes. They’re not willing to risk standing up for what is probably a losing issue. The only thing that can save vaping is changing public opinion from the bottom up, which will be very, very hard.