Juul CEO steps down amid vaping controversy

The company is also ceasing its marketing efforts.

September 25, 2019, 2:56 PM

Juul's CEO stepped down on Wednesday following backlash against the e-cigarette company's marketing practices and a wave of illnesses and 11 deaths linked to vaping in recent weeks.

Kevin Burns will be replaced by K.C. Crosthwaite, an executive from Altria, which owns a major stake in Juul.

Juul's future is at risk, the incoming CEO said in a statement Wednesday, "due to unacceptable levels of youth usage and eroding public confidence in our industry."

Juul said it does not plan to fight the Trump administration's flavored e-cigarette ban and will suspend broadcast, print and digital advertising efforts in the U.S., including the company's "Make the Switch" campaign, which the Food and Drug Administration said violated federal marketing regulations.

Dr. Frank Leone, director of Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Programs at Penn Medicine, said he was happy to hear that Juul would discontinue "Make the Switch."

"The campaign implied there was therapeutic value in their product, a value derived from assumptions about relative safety that were never based on the kind of science we expect when introducing something into the body," he said.

"It’s good to see the FDA's action had a real and tangible effect on public safety," Leone added.

Lauren Pacek, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral studies at Duke University, said that ousting Juul's CEO in favor of a former tobacco executive seemed like a smart business move, but not necessarily a wise health strategy.

"These individuals are very good at their jobs when it comes to keeping people addicted to the products that they sell," Pacek said. "I would suggest that we keep in mind the past actions of the tobacco industry, and their impacts on the public health, and view this move with a very healthy dose of skepticism."

PHOTO: Juul products are displayed at a smoke shop in New York City, Dec. 20, 2018.
Juul products are displayed at a smoke shop in New York City, Dec. 20, 2018.
Seth Wenig/AP, FILE

Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health, warned that hysteria over e-cigarettes might ultimately backfire.

"We are seeing the destruction of thousands of small businesses, while the market is being handed over to Big Tobacco," he said.

The leadership shift at Juul comes as state governments are cracking down on vaping companies, including Juul, which dominates the e-cigarette market. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker declared a public health emergency in his state Tuesday and ordered a four-month ban on the sale of vaping products. New York and Michigan banned the sale of flavored e-cigarettes earlier this month, and the Trump administration says it plans to put similar regulations in place on the federal level.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a congressional subcommittee Tuesday that the agency expects to see hundreds of additional lung injuries linked to vaping beyond the 530 confirmed and probable cases that the CDC announced last week. Nine people have died so far from vaping-related illness.

"We're seeing the kind of tactics that were used with cigarettes being used again and we think we need to take really aggressive action to protect the young people," Schuchat said when asked about e-cigarette companies' marketing practices during a CDC and FDA hearing Wednesday.

Before the recent lung illness outbreak, e-cigarettes were marketed as a way to help adults quit smoking since scientists believed they are less harmful than traditional cigarettes.

Public perceptions of e-cigarettes have since shifted and scientists remain conflicted about how safe e-cigarettes actually are.

"It is unfortunate because I think that e-cigarettes could have been a huge threat to the continued sale of tobacco cigarettes," Siegel said.

"That is no longer possible," he added.

While most patients with lung injuries "reported a history of using e-cigarette products containing THC," according to the CDC, no single ingredient has been implicated in the agency's investigation thus far.

During the hearing Wednesday, Dr. Ned Sharpless, acting commissioner of the FDA, confirmed reports that vitamin E acetate was present in some THC products. Sharpless said the presence of vitamin E, which he described as a skin oil, "has no business being in a pulmonary product."

"We believe was added as a cutting agent," he said.

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