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Democratic senators question Juul about its Altria deal

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Eleven democratic senators, led by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), have penned a letter to Juul Labs, asking a series of questions around the product’s marketing, its effectiveness as a tool to help people quit smoking combustible cigarettes, sales figures and, perhaps most importantly, more information on the deal that gave Altria a minority stake in Juul Labs.

“The corporate marriage between two companies that have been the most prolific at marketing highly addictive nicotine products to children is alarming from a public health standpoint and demonstrates, yet again, that JUUL is more interested in padding its profit margins than protecting our nation’s children,” writes Sen. Durbin in the letter.

Questions in the letter include records around advertising and marketing spend for Juul products, as well as any changes that might have been made to Juul’s Youth Prevention Plan following the deal with Altria.

In late 2018, Juul announced it had sold a 35 percent minority stake of the company to Altria Group, makers of Marlboro cigarettes, for $12.8 billion. The company said that a partnership with Altria would help Juul market and distribute to currently addicted adult cigarette smokers.

In the letter, the senators cite the American Heart Association, which called the Altria/Juul deal “a match made in tobacco heaven.” Juul was already in hot water over its product’s popularity among young people, so it’s only expected that a partnership with traditional Big Tobacco would further fuel concerns among critics.

More from the letter:

JUUL’s decision to team up with Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, is also bad news for children considering that Altria has a long and sordid history of spending billions to entice children to smoke through targeted campaigns that intentionally lied about the science and health effects from cigarettes. And their efforts have clearly paid off. According to the CDC, Altria’s Marlboro cigarette continues to be the most popular cigarette brand among children in the United States, with 48.8 percent of high school smokers preferring Marlboro cigarettes. Further, the proportion of high school smokers who smoked Marlboro cigarettes increased dramatically between 2012 and 2016, by a whopping 27 percent. While JUUL has promised to address youth vaping through its modest voluntary efforts, by accepting $12.8 billion from Altria—a tobacco giant with such a disturbing record of deceptive marketing to hook children onto cigarettes—JUUL has lost what little remaining credibility the company had when it claimed to care about the public health.

A Juul Labs spokesperson had this to say in response to the letter:

We welcome the opportunity to share information regarding JUUL Labs’ commitment to curbing underage use of our products while fulfilling our mission to eliminate combustible cigarettes, the number one cause of preventable death in our country. We agree that companies such as ours must step up with meaningful measures to limit access and appeal of vapor products to young people. That’s exactly what we’ve done, and we will do more to combat teen use to save the harm-reduction opportunity for the 34 million adult smokers in the United States. Don’t take our word for it — look at our actions. As part of our action plan deployed in November 2018 to keep JUUL products out of the hands of youth, we stopped the sale of certain flavored JUULpods to traditional retail stores, strengthened our retail compliance and secret shopper program, enhanced our online age-verification, exited our Facebook and Instagram accounts and are continuously working to remove inappropriate third-party social media content. We support the FDA’s draft guidance restricting the sale of certain flavored products, including JUULpods, at retail outlets and online, and will continue to work with FDA, Congress, state Attorneys General, local municipalities, and community organizations as a transparent and responsible partner in combating underage use.

U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jack Reed (D-RI), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tom Udall (D-NM), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) joined Sen. Durbin in sending the letter. It comes just a month after the FDA proposed further regulations to the sale of flavored e-cig products.

Juul has until April 25 to provide answers and information in response to the letter.

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