NEW YORK — America’s leading e-cigarette maker is halting store sales of some flavours to deter use by kids.
The move by Juul Labs Inc. comes ahead of an expected U.S. government crackdown on underage sales of flavoured e-cigarettes.
Juul said it stopped filling store orders Tuesday for mango, fruit, creme and cucumber pods and will resume sales only to retailers that scan IDs and take other steps to verify a buyer is at least 21. It said it will continue to sell menthol and mint at stores, and sell all flavours through its website.
The company also said it would close its Facebook and Instagram social media accounts, and pledged other steps to make it clear that it doesn’t want kids using its e-cigarettes.
Its products are meant to help adult smokers quit regular cigarettes, CEO Kevin Burns said in a statement.
“We don’t want anyone who doesn’t smoke, or already use nicotine, to use Juul products,” Burns said. “We certainly don’t want youth using the product. It is bad for public health and it is bad for our mission.”
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that turn liquid often containing nicotine into an inhalable vapour. They’re generally considered a less dangerous alternative to regular cigarettes, but health officials have warned nicotine is harmful to developing brains.
Some vaping products come in flavours with names like bubble gum and cotton candy, leading to criticism that the industry is marketing e-cigarettes to children.
Juul e-cigarettes first went on sale in 2015. The devices look like computer flash drives, can be recharged in computer USB ports and have prefilled cartridges containing nicotine. A starter kit with the device, charger and pods costs about $50 on the company’s website.
Last year, Juul became the top-selling U.S. brand of e-cigarette. That’s due at least partly to aggressive marketing through Instagram and other social media that many kids see, some researchers say. University of Pittsburgh researchers estimate that a quarter of the followers of Juul’s Twitter account are underage.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans sales of e-cigarettes and tobacco products to those under 18. Some states restrict sales to 21 and older.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb responded to Juul’s announcement via Twitter.
“We’re deeply concerned about the epidemic of youth use of e-cigs,” he said. “Voluntary action is no substitute for regulatory steps#FDA will soon take. But we want to recognize actions by JUUL today and urge all manufacturers to immediately implement steps to start reversing these trends.”
Last week, an FDA official said the agency plans to bar stores and gas stations from selling most flavoured e-cigarettes, but not menthol. It also plans to require online retailers to verify ages, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, explaining that the details were not final.
Juul said it will keep selling mint and menthol in stores because those flavours mirror what is in traditional cigarettes. For sales on its website, the company said it is beefing up age checks, requiring the buyer to give the last four digits of their Social Security number or upload a government ID.
Vaping products have grown into a $4 billion market in the U.S. However, there’s been little research on their long-term effects and debate persists about how helpful they are in helping smokers quit or avoid cigarettes
The FDA has been targeting the San Francisco-based Juul. In April, the agency issued warnings to retailers about sales to children. The FDA also asked Juul Labs to turn over documents about the devices’ design and marketing, and in September made an unannounced visit to Juul headquarters to look for evidence.
It’s not just Juul. Last month, the FDA sent letters to 21 other e-cigarette companies seeking information that might help the agency determine if those companies have been marketing products illegally.