Juul seeks role in reducing smoking as it pursues vaping category reset

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

Vape market leader Juul is promising more research on the effects of its products as it attempts what it calls a “reset” of its relationship with regulators and the public. 

That includes an in-house study released Tuesday, linking its Canadian market launch with reduced cigarette sales. But one prominent tobacco-control policy expert called the reported decrease “very small,” and said there’s insufficient evidence that smokers are switching. 

Juul has undergone multiple valuation decreases and layoffs over the last year. It’s facing significant legal and financial challenges in its U.S. home market, where 39 states are jointly investigating its marketing and sales practices, including whether it targeted youth.

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Talking Point

Juul said it has stopped marketing in Canada and plans to publish more research on the effects of its products as it attempts a “reset” of the vaping category and make the case for its role in reducing the harms of cigarettes to smokers. 

In October 2019, new CEO K.C. Crosthwaite—a former executive at tobacco giant Altria, which has a 35 per cent stake in the company—said Juul was planning a “necessary reset” of the vaping category. 

The company “stopped all marketing at the start of this year” in Canada, said Nick Kadysh, head of corporate affairs. In January, it told retailers it would stop importing four fruit-flavoured pods, and it’s “through almost all of the inventory” it had on hand, according to Michael Nederhoff, the company’s president for Canada.

Juul’s current share of the Canadian market is “in the 60 per cent range,” he said, citing data from research firm Nielsen. That’s down from 78 per cent a year ago. Nederhoff declined to say how COVID-19 has affected Juul’s Canadian business, but noted that Nielsen has reported increased sales of both cigarettes and vaping products during the pandemic.

Canadian regulators have also imposed new e-cigarette restrictions. Earlier this month, Health Canada announced a ban on vaping ads where “they can be seen or heard by youth,” including at retail checkouts and on social media. Ottawa is contemplating further limiting nicotine content and requiring manufacturers to disclose more details of sales and R&D. 

The findings Juul released Tuesday are part of a broader research focus it will continue to roll out as part of its category reset. E-cigarette makers must re-submit their products to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval by September. Kadysh said Juul plans to make public the supporting scientific evidence it provides the regulator.

Juul claims cigarette sales volume fell 1.5 per cent at the store level on average within a year of it entering a Canadian city, comparing the period before and after its official September 2018 arrival in the country. It drew the data from a single retailer’s 608 locations in 155 localities across five provinces; Juul declined to name the chain. It will present the research at the annual meeting of AcademyHealth, a health services and policy organization.

Juul cites a Health Canada statement, found on a section of its website about vaping, that the practice is “less harmful than smoking.” Given the scale of the cigarette market, “even the smallest change on that size of category is a … really significant number,” said Nederhoff. Juul estimates cigarette sales fell by 16 million sticks at the retailer it measured. 

Robert Schwartz, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said the company’s findings may show a “very small” change in cigarette consumption but not the prevalence of smoking, and noted that sales already “have a secular downward trend.” The size of the decrease “doesn’t make any difference whatsoever in terms of health impacts,” he said.

“Any study that is done by a company who has a clear interest in the results … needs to be discredited from scratch,” said Schwartz. He noted that the stores examined represent a small fraction of the tens of thousands across the country that sell cigarettes and vaping products, and that regulatory measures such as tobacco-tax increases could also contribute to declining sales. Juul controlled for cigarette prices and local economic conditions, among other factors. 

Juul said AcademyHealth reviewed the study for inclusion, and that it is not sponsoring the event or organization. The company is publishing the findings “in keeping with the practices of the scientific community” and “any researchers who have thoughts on this will be able to say their piece,” Kadysh said. 

The research doesn’t show whether the decrease in cigarette sales reflected a smaller number of smokers who switched to vaping, or a larger number who simply bought fewer packs. “There is substantial evidence that dual use of e-cigarettes and combustible cigarettes does not reduce harm and likely even increases harm,” said Schwartz. 

He also pointed to Statistics Canada’s latest study of student tobacco, alcohol and drug use, which found 29 per cent of respondents in grades 10 to 12 had used an e-cigarette in the previous 30 days. Another agency survey published in July reported that among those who’d vaped in the last month, a majority of those under 25 years old had never smoked cigarettes. “The benefits at the population level of using e-cigarettes for smokers has to outweigh the huge public health costs that we are incurring by the dramatic increases in the use of e-cigarettes by non-smoking young people,” according to Schwartz. He said if vaping companies want to help people quit, their devices should be approved for and restricted to current smokers.

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Kadysh said Juul doesn’t claim to be a smoking-cessation product, and isn’t seeking specific policy changes in response to its research. It supports the new ad restrictions. But the firm hopes Health Canada will eventually allow companies to “make relative risk statements” such as that substituting vaping for smoking may reduce hazardous chemical intake. “That gives an indication to a current smoker that there [are] potential benefits of switching,” he said.  

In May, former Canadian health minister Rona Ambrose joined Juul’s board.

This article has been updated to remove a reference to plain-packaging regulations, which took effect after the period of Juul’s study