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House panel accuses e-cigarette maker Juul of targeting children

Juul Labs co-founder James Monsees testifies before a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee. (Susan Walsh/AP)

A House subcommittee accused Juul Labs of “deploying a sophisticated program” to target children and teenagers, including at schools and summer camp, as part of an effort to become the nation’s largest seller of e-cigarettes.

The panel’s investigation — based on about 55,000 documents — was detailed in a hearing Thursday and a memo compiled by staffers for the subcommittee on economic and consumer policy.

The subcommittee said that Juul operated a division that persuaded schools to allow the company to present its programming to students and paid the schools in several instances at least $10,000 to gain access to students during classes, summer school and weekend programs. The effort ended last fall and involved about a half dozen schools and youth programs, Juul officials said.

One receipt released by the panel showed that Juul paid $134,000 to hold a five-week summer camp for 80 children at a charter school. Students recruited for the summer camp included third-graders. The stated goal of the program was to help “student participants create a personal ‘healthy lifestyle plan’ . . . engaging low-income youth at risk of making poor health decisions.”

The documents also included email exchanges showing Juul executives raising concerns that its programs for youths were “eerily similar” to those launched by “Big Tobacco” in the past, which were highly criticized by regulators and youth advocates.

Ashley Gould, chief administrative officer of Juul, told the subcommittee that the short-lived youth prevention and education program was designed to educate young people about the dangers of nicotine addiction.

“We had hired education experts that we thought would be helpful to stop kids using Juul and we then received feedback.” The company ended the program last September, she said. “We take the criticism that that was not well received,” she said.

James Monsees, co-founder of the company, told lawmakers at the hearing that Juul had made “missteps” but has tried to correct them, noting that the company pulled most of its flavored products out of retail stores last fall. He said that Juul never wanted young people to use its vaping products. “Juul isn’t Big Tobacco,” he said.

Critics at the hearing blamed Juul for what former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb has called an “epidemic” of youth vaping.

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.) called Monsees “an example 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.”

Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said, “Juul’s failure to take any responsibility for the marketing they use is extraordinary.”

“If you look at the curriculum, it’s shocking,” Myers said. He pointed out that the antismoking curriculum used by Juul removed all the components related to warning children about industry marketing and the use of flavored products. “There’s no way that’s an accident. They took out sections that have the greatest impact on preventing youth from using their product.”

The Juul programs resemble educational programs created by tobacco companies in the 1980s and 1990s, Myers noted. Those programs, which focused on smoking as an adult choice and omitted the role of marketing, made it more likely that teens would smoke. “That’s what you’re seeing here, only with vaping instead of tobacco.”

On Wednesday, the first day of the hearings, two teenagers said that Juul representatives came to their school and presented information asserting that Juul products were “totally safe.”

Juul officials said that the company has taken several steps to curb underage use. In November, it stopped the sale of flavored pods — except for mint, menthol and tobacco flavors — in retail stores and enhanced the age-verification process for online sales. It also shut down its Facebook and Instagram accounts and supported legislation to raise the age for purchasing tobacco products to 21.

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