JUUL Labs has racked up billions of dollars in sales in recent years with a product that is supposedly a healthier alternative to cigarettes, one that could help people addicted to nicotine kick the habit. But the San Francisco vape brand, which sold a 35 percent stake to Altria Group (parent company to Philip Morris USA) last December, has also been accused of intentionally targeting kids and others with candy-like flavors and a sleek, smokeless device you can charge on your laptop.
Enter Jeffrey Wigand, the former top tobacco company scientist-turned-whistleblower whose crusade against Philip Morris and other firms was dramatized in the chilling 1999 movie The Insider. In an interview with VICE, Wigand revealed for the first time that he has been working actively behind the scenes to support the nation's first e-cig sales ban in San Francisco—and to take on Juul in fights across the country, including in Washington, where it has assembled a star-studded lobbying operation.
The context here is, well, complicated. In response to a mounting number of state and federal investigations, Juul last year made it more difficult to buy some flavors in stores and sharply cut back on promotion on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. In March, the FDA proposed a limited crackdown on the sales of e-cigarettes that would have given Juul and other manufacturers until August 2021 to submit formal applications to keep selling their products. But anti-tobacco activists—who sued in federal court—won a shorter (ultimately ten-month) timeframe if manufacturers want their products to stay on the market.
Meanwhile, the showdown looms in Juul's hometown, which passed its ban in an effort to curb what officials say is a nicotine "epidemic" among teenagers. The company and its allies are fighting to replace the ban with a much looser set of regulations, and recently got enough signatures to let local voters decide the issue in November. If upheld, the ban would prevent e-cig sales without FDA approval.
As Juul's day of reckoning approaches, VICE talked to Wigand about his plans to soon stake out a very visible role as "poster boy" against e-cigarettes. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Although you've stayed busy continuing your fight against Big Tobacco, you've opted to stay mostly out of the public spotlight since Russell Crowe played you in The Insider 20 years ago. What made you decide to get in the middle of this high profile—and potentially nasty—battle over smokeless vaping products?
Jeffrey Wigand: My concern is the penetration of this product with middle- and high-school children. I'm not talking about adults making a rational cognitive decision. I'm talking about children who are duped into using a sleek, high-tech USB-looking nicotine delivery device that contains [as much as] two packs of cigarettes [worth of nicotine] in a single pod. This is not an adult product for cessation or an alternate form of harm-reduction nicotine [as JUUL contends]. That, quite frankly, is just plain old bullshit to me. This is for children. And the flavors they have been putting out are for children.
If our FDA does not do something on a regulatory basis to control this product's marketing and distribution, we have a catastrophe on our hands. We all know that the brain of a young person is much different than the brain of the adult. It’s a lot easier to addict kids than adults. And if you get them addicted [to cigarettes] now, studies show two-thirds of them will be addicted forever.
Editor's note: Asked to comment on Wigand's remarks in this story, Juul spokesman Ted Kwong said, "There are actually a number of assertions here that are just inaccurate about our company and products. We do not and will never sell flavors which are clearly targeted to youth—we do not want any non-nicotine users of any age to buy our products."
"We believe our four non-tobacco and non-menthol-based flavored JUUL products are responsibly marketed and play a critical role in switching adult smokers from cigarettes, since certain flavors can help smokers disassociate from the taste of tobacco and the odor of cigarettes—we see the results in our own behavioral research," Kwong added. "In our studies of thousands of JUUL users, people who exclusively used non-tobacco flavors were 30 percent more likely to switch than those who use tobacco flavors."
So you're not buying the claim by the Juul-financed Coalition for Reasonable Vaping Regulation that its products are designed for adults who want to quit smoking and that "**the** best way to stop youth vaping" is to strike down San Francisco’s ban?
This is not rocket science. And it's not subtle. Yeah, they’ll say, "We're putting a safer product out for people who want a safer alternative, for adults." But what is the penetration of the adult market versus the middle school and high school market? We know, from some of the work that's been done and published, that [e-cigarettes] have had somewhere between a 70 to 80 percent increase in penetration rate among high-school kids [between 2017 and 2018].
We don't have a comparable penetration rate for adults choosing to use it as an alternative to cigarettes. But are adults dropping their combustible products to have a Juul or a "heat not burn" product? No.
What do you hope to accomplish by supporting an effort to uphold one municipal ban, especially in a city regarded as being on the political fringe?
The rationale is that San Francisco is banning it until the FDA, the government agency that's supposed to do something, gets off its dead ass and [regulates] it. And guess what? Other people are reading about it and saying wait a minute, should this thing not be regulated? Utah is looking at it. North Carolina. Ohio. I mean, there's a whole host of other states that are looking at doing the same thing. Why? Because the duty to do the regulating is not being done by our own FDA.
Do you think you'll prevail?
If we tell the public that this is a product that's been marketed indirectly or subliminally to your high school and middle school kid, I think you're going to find out that people are gonna get somewhat pissed off. And look what happened last month; [two kids] told Congress that a Juul representative came into their 9th grade classroom and said that it's totally safe.
Juul recently disclosed it spent $1.5 million to help finance the San Francisco campaign, and is adding political operatives and lawyers. What’s your battle plan? Your biggest weapon?
The truth. We're basically trying to educate the public and the voter.
What will your role be, specifically?
I am not public yet, but I'll be a poster boy for the campaign. I haven't decided yet to what degree. It's too early. Right now I’m working pro bono, helping them understand the legal, technical, and scientific issues. We're working with the media. The San Francisco Chronicle has been just pounding on them. And I'm working with people both on the political aspects of the campaign but also in understanding how a company like Juul operates, like sending representatives into schools to tell kids that vaping is safe.
Juul also launched a massive campaign pledging to keep its products away from underage consumers. Will it make a difference?
We've heard this before. This is right out of the Philip Morris playbook.
After the 1964 Surgeon General report said smoking is a killer, the industry put out a statement, and published it in all the major newspapers, saying they were going to do everything possible to ascertain the role between tobacco smoking and diseases, [including] lung and heart disease, COPD, impotence, breast cancer and other cancers, etc, etc, etc.
It came out later that at the same time they were continuing their marketing [to younger smokers]. They came out with the Virginia Slims, which had an elegant thin lady smoking it. What's the message for a young girl? If you smoke this, you are going to be slim and elegant.
Compare what you're seeing now with what the tobacco companies were doing back then.
This is probably a more egregious process of marketing. The whole issue with blowing the whistle [in the 1990s] was about what the industry was doing, particularly in making their cigarettes more addictive and some of the harmful additives they were using without ever disclosing it to the public.
This on the other hand… I encountered it in a sixth-grade class I was talking to about "Healthy Choices." A kid took it out of his shirt pocket, held it in a closed hand, sucked on it and, since there is no vape to see, just expelled it. Sixth grade.
Do you really believe Juul is intentionally going after a new generation of nicotine consumers?
Do they go out and directly market to children? No. But did they make flavor pods that were attractive to children? Candy-like flavors? Yes, all different types of it. Then they put it in this very high-tech, sleek device that's very attractive to our youth. So was there a direct marketing? No. Was it indirect? Yes. Did it accomplish what you would get through direct marketing? Yes.
Given all of the ammo you have to work with, like candy-flavored tobacco, you must be enjoying this, especially the opportunity to give your old nemesis Philip Morris another poke in the eye?
I don't want to just blind them in one eye. I want to drive a stake through their heart. I want to kill them. I want 'em gone. I thought that was happening when the state attorneys general were suing the tobacco industry [in the 1990s]. Of the money we got, part of it was supposed to go to start helping people not start [smoking]. And to quit. They've never used the money as it was intended; they used it to fix roads, bridges, and even morgues instead.
Now that you’re coming forward as engaging on this issue, do you think Juul will reach out to you, given its pledge to find solutions?
[_Laughs_] You've got to be kidding me. The only way they're going to reach out to me is with a hammer.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Josh Meyer on Twitter.