Facing regulatory pushback, Juul is working on a new device to curb nicotine addiction

A sign advertising Juul products is displayed in a store on Dec. 19, 2019 in New York City. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

As it tries to get ahead of a regulatory crackdown on the vaping industry, e-cigarette company Juul Labs has applied for a patent on a new device it claims will use machine learning to help wean people off nicotine.

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Talking Point

A recently published Juul patent application describes a device that lets users taper nicotine use, as well as cap daily nicotine consumption with the help of machine learning. The patent application comes as the company reconsiders its business strategy amid calls to restrict e-cigarette products to quell vaping-related lung injuries and youth nicotine use.

A patent application filed in the U.S. in June 2019 and made public last month details the company’s intellectual property claim for technology that it says can be programmed to gradually reduce the amount of nicotine its devices deliver to users. 

“E-cigarettes have been shown to help smokers displace their addiction from combusted cigarettes to e-cigarettes and may offer a harm reduced alternative,” the application reads. “In some aspects, nicotine-free e-cigarettes may contain sensory stimulants, such as citric acid.”

The application describes a device that delivers multiple vaping substances: one that includes nicotine, for example, and at least one other that has no nicotine or a very low dose of the drug. 

Users can tailor its settings to their own program for quitting nicotine, the application says. For example, they can set the e-cigarette to deliver a hit of nicotine only in the first puff or two, and have it kick out a “sensory stimulant” like citric acid in subsequent hits. They can also cap their daily nicotine intake and have the device notify them or lock them out once they’ve reached it.

The device, which could be synced with a mobile app, would also include a machine learning component that could adjust features like nicotine concentration and delivery patterns based on “inputs” the user provides, either by actively giving feedback or having the device learn by monitoring vaping behaviour. “For example, at later stages of the cessation program the machine learning algorithm may increase the ratio of citric acid puffs and may determine that first few puffs of vaporizer session are nicotine and then after that citric acid puffs may give the user a similar level of satisfaction,” the application reads. 

“The fact that we have filed for such patent protection does not mean JUUL Labs will move forward with the commercial development of any particular technological concept,” a Juul spokesperson told The Logic in an email. “We remain focused on resetting the vapor category and earning the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and transition adult smokers from combustible cigarettes.

The medical community is divided on whether e-cigarettes can help people quit smoking. Public Health England maintains that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than smoking cigarettes, and the U.K.’s Royal College of Physicians directs doctors to promote e-cigarettes “as widely as possible” to patients trying to quit smoking. Health officials in Canada, meanwhile, have called for regulators to impose the same restrictions as they have for the tobacco industry, and for more research into the health implications of e-cigarettes before recommending them as harm-reduction tools. 

The discussion has grown more urgent amid an onslaught of vaping-related lung injuries and an uptick in nicotine-use among young people. As of February 4, 2,758 e-cigarette users in the U.S. have been hospitalized, 64 of whom have died; the majority of cases involved patients under 25 years old and vaping products that included vitamin E acetate and THC—the psychoactive chemical in cannabis—which Juul doesn’t sell. There have been 18 reported cases in Canada, as of February 18.

North American regulators have begun responding with restrictions on the marketing and sale of e-cigarette products. In December 2019, Nova Scotia became the first province to ban sales of flavoured vaping products, effective April 1; B.C. and Ontario are considering similar rules. Health Canada, meanwhile, is reviewing the federal laws governing vaping, enacted less than two years ago, with potential updates including a ban on ads in public spaces and countrywide restrictions on flavours.

In the U.S., President Donald Trump announced rules banning certain vape flavours in January, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is giving e-cigarette makers until May to prove their products deliver a net benefit to the public in order to keep selling them. 

Juul has tried to get in front of the regulatory pushback, removing all flavoured products from the U.S. market over the last two years and, as The Logic first reported last month, temporarily halting their production in Canada. 

But it has nonetheless been a blow to Juul’s business, once worth an estimated US$38 billion. Tobacco giant Altria has written down its US$12.8-billion investment in the firm by US$8.6 billion, now valuing the company at about US$12 billion, and The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating whether Altria had properly disclosed to its shareholders the risks associated with the investment. Juul laid off 650 employees in the wake of the controversy and announced it would cut spending by US$1 billion, shifting its focus from marketing to regulatory compliance. “As the vapor category undergoes a necessary reset, this reorganization will help Juul Labs focus on reducing underage use, investing in scientific research, and creating new technologies while earning a license to operate in the U.S. and around the world,” CEO K.C. Crosthwaite said in a statement following the cuts. 

In a report published earlier this month, Roberto Pozzi, a London-based credit analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, predicted that regulations would continue hurting the sector over the next 12 to 18 months. Bouncing back, he said, will depend on convincing lawmakers that new products are safer than cigarettes. “If regulators recognise even some of the reduced risk claims of the new categories and consumption stabilises, this will help the sector’s credit quality in the longer term by preserving revenue,” he wrote.  

Developing a technology that can taper nicotine intake could signal to regulators that the company is prepared to comply with their new rules, said Stanton Glantz, a medical professor and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. But Glantz warned this particular technology could cause even more harm than Juul’s earlier e-cigarettes. 

“As a matter of policy, [the FDA] should not permit this,” he said in an interview with The Logic.

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Glantz’s main concerns were about privacy—that Juul would have access to the personal health and location data of its customers through the the device’s two-way communication abilities—and that an algorithm could control the nicotine concentrations its vapes deliver, potentially making the products more addictive. The company did not answer The Logic’s questions about how the technology it’s considering would control nicotine concentrations and other vaping features.  

He also raised doubts about the device’s ability to wean users off nicotine, adding that creating a device that curbs nicotine dependence would be a death knell to Juul’s business. “They’re saying we’re gonna have this product so people can wean themselves off nicotine, but then they’re off the product. I don’t think Juul’s interested in putting themselves out of business.”

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