The popular e-cigarette Juul is under renewed scrutiny by Congress thanks to two days of hearings that could pressure lawmakers to act on e-cigarette flavors that appeal to young people.
On Wednesday, the House Oversight and Reform Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee heard from witnesses about the company’s efforts to attract some vulnerable populations, namely teenagers and American Indians.
Juul officials will appear before the panel Thursday and will likely have to respond to some serious allegations that came up at Wednesday’s session. In the second hearing, Juul co-founder James Monsees and chief administration officer Ashley Gould will testify, as well as prominent anti-smoking advocate Matthew L. Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Caleb Mintz, a teenager who testified Wednesday, told the panel how a Juul representative talked to students from his high school during an assembly on mental health and addiction. While the representative told the students that they shouldn’t use the device, he sent mixed messages, Mintz said, by telling the teens that the product was “totally safe.” The Juul employee also told the students that the product could help with quitting cigarettes and was under FDA approval, Mintz testified — which are both claims that are false or misleading.
Rae O’Leary, a researcher representing South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Health Committee, detailed how Juul offered the tribe a “switching program” with steeply discounted Juul starter kits. While the company says the products offer a safer alternative to cigarette smoking, O’Leary said the outreach to the tribe in this way was problematic given a history of tobacco companies targeting American Indian populations, which have a much higher smoking rate than the general population. The tribe ultimately rejected Juul’s outreach.
The hearing cast Juul as a company much more interested in marketing to get young non-smokers addicted than helping older adult smokers switch to e-cigarettes. Robert Jackler, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine who runs a research group devoted to tobacco advertising, presented numerous examples of Juul’s youth-oriented marketing in prepared testimony that was dozens of pages long. Jackler said that it wasn’t an accident that Juul prioritized Instagram and other social media platforms popular with underage teenagers.
“I don’t think there is any question that Juul knew that its actions were perpetuating the youth epidemic,” he said.
The Juul hearings come as Congress debates whether to make it harder for young people to purchase e-cigarettes and other tobacco products. There’s a strong chance that Congress will enact legislation to raise the nationwide tobacco purchasing age to 21 later this year. A bipartisan Senate bill related to health care costs contains a provision that would do that. The language is backed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But it will be hard to have that debate without bringing up the broader issue of flavored e-cigarettes. There are House and Senate bills that would also prevent the sale of flavored products, and the sponsors will likely want them to be part of the smoking age conversation.
The Senate bill sponsor, Richard J. Durbin, told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday that he wasn’t sure of the next steps for his bill, but supporters were looking for a venue to bring it up, noting that the tobacco age bill could be an opportunity. Raising the age isn’t enough, he said.
“We have to have a proactive effort to remove some of these dangerous products from the shelf,” Durbin said after the House Oversight hearing, where he appeared as a witness.
The hearing could ratchet up the pressure on the House to act on measures to raise the tobacco age and ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. has a bill that would do both, but has yet to schedule a hearing on it.