On Wednesday, Kevin Burns, the CEO of JUUL Labs, sat down with an anchor on CBS This Morning and started defending his company, a position he must be used to by now. Since June, nearly 200 cases of lung illnesses or injuries apparently linked to vaping have been brought to the federal government's attention, and health officials revealed this week that there has been at least one death linked to vaping. When Tony Dokoupil, the co-host of This Morning, asked Burns what he made of the flood of this bad news, he stated that they were "worrisome." But he didn't sound that worried.
"The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] is leading the investigation, so we're obviously in close contact with them," Burns said. "If there was any indication that there was an adverse health condition related to our product," he later continued, "I think we'd take very swift action."
That seems unlikely: Both JUUL and the federal government have so far been moving at a rather glacial pace, despite evidence that e-cigarettes pose a variety of potential health risks. JUUL has a history of waiting until any given problem (like, say, teen vaping) gets out of hand before responding to it, and the government has taken what the Los Angeles Times once described as a "go-slow approach" on regulation—perhaps not doing enough, say critics, to curb what they see as JUUL's negative influence on society. As for the recent outbreak of lung diseases, federal officials are claiming that they don't know enough to identify a cause. ("More information is needed to know what is causing these illnesses," a CDC official told the New York Times.)
"Like any health-related events reportedly associated with the use of vapor products, we are monitoring these reports, and we have robust safety monitoring systems in place," said Ted Kwong, a spokesperson for JUUL Labs. "We understand those events are being reviewed by health authorities."
There might even be a brand-new problem: It turns out that many of the reported cases could have been from people using THC pods and vaping THC oil, the main psychoactive component of cannabis, which JUUL does not sell or condone.
"The CDC is being too vague and too broad," said Michael Siegel, a professor in the School of Public Health at Boston University, suggesting that what's "very possibly happening" is that "the THC oil itself is causing these lung problems, or some contaminant is getting into it when extracting the THC."
"This does not reflect the safety of the overall vaping market," he continued. "You should not vape any oil period, and you should not be buying any product off the street."
For the past few months, JUUL has been locked in damage-control mode. In July, around the same time JUUL participated in a two-day congressional hearing about its role in teenage vaping, Burns appeared in a CNBC documentary and said he was "sorry" to the parents of children who have succumbed to what the head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has called an "epidemic" of teen vape use. JUUL is also supporting raising the age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21, and, having given up its social media accounts, launched a $10 million television, print, and radio commercial campaign that's explicitly focused on cigarette users to "make the switch" to its pen. (Companies can advertise electronic cigarettes on TV, but not actual cigarettes, because when Richard Nixon signed the 1970 Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act into law, e-cigs didn't exist.)
It's reasonable to be skeptical about JUUL's motives—especially considering that Philip Morris International and Altria, a tobacco producer that has a 35 percent stake in JUUL, are in talks about a merger, which would make it a powerhouse and further tie JUUL to big tobacco. But the federal government isn't in much of a rush at all, either. JUUL still remains unapproved by the FDA, and it wasn't until a federal judge gave the agency a ten-month deadline in July to review the vaping company's application that the FDA was forced to get that process going. Meanwhile, cities like San Francisco are trying to pass a sales moratorium on vaping, and because of the feds' relative inaction, the parents of e-cig-addicted teenagers, along with their local representatives, are taking to the streets to protest.
"I don't understand what we're waiting for," said Meredith Berkman, a co-founder of the grassroots organization Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes. "It's tragic it's taken these diseases for people to finally start taking things like this seriously. This was all already an emergency. This was all already worrisome."
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