PIQUA, Ohio — The Food and Drug Administration announced its long-awaited e-cigarette regulations with new rules, subject to approval, that will require more stringent age verification for people buying flavored nicotine — sending vape companies and their teenage fans scrambling.
In a statement announcing the rules, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb acknowledged that vaping is less harmful than cigarettes, but said he was shocked at how widespread teen e-cigarette usage has become — a trend he believes makes kids more likely to try smoking.
On Tuesday, the vaping giant Juul preemptively announced it will temporarily stop selling flavored nicotine vapor pods to retail stores until they impose strict age verification mechanisms, like ID scanners. And on Juul’s website, users will have to provide the last four digits of their Social Security number to buy flavored pods.
But all of the new rules from the FDA probably won’t stop the army of kids on sites like YouTube and Instagram, who have essentially become evangelists for the coolness of vaping. Juul doesn’t sponsor any of these influencers, who get their money from companies that make third-party Juul pods, other vape juices, or bigger vape rigs. But their enthusiasm about the industry helped drive the FDA crackdown.
In just a few years, Juul has transformed the e-cigarette landscape. The company is now worth about $15 billion, and currently controls about 70 percent of the market. In other words, it has a lot to lose.
Juuls are also incredibly easy to purchase — and incredibly easy to hide. And that’s made them a hit among high schoolers, where kids can hit the Juul in class or the bathroom without teachers noticing, prompting school administrators to beg for solutions.
So ahead of the FDA’s ruling, Juul moved to appease regulators, not just with the pause on flavors, but also by deleting its Facebook and Instagram accounts, so that it wouldn’t be seen as marketing to kids. But their social reach isn't loosening its grip anytime soon: posters like Dash Drips and Donny Smokes say they have no plans to stop posting.
This segment originally aired November 15, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.