SAN FRANCISCO, Ca. — The CEO of Juul Labs announced Thursday that Juul is working with e-cigarette vendors to implement an ID verification system that prohibits cashiers from selling to underage shoppers and places limits on the amount customers can buy. The announcement comes after roughly one-in-five high school students and nearly one-in-20 middle school students said they vaped in the last year. The FDA has declared teen vaping an “epidemic.”
Juul CEO Kevin Burns demonstrated the system at a register in San Francisco. When he tried to use an expired ID, the system would not allow the cashier to complete the purchase.
“There was no way to complete the transaction,” Burns said.
Juul said more than 40,000 stores have committed to implementing the new standards, and that it plans to stop distributing its products to stores that aren’t compliant by 2021. The company called it the strictest verification standard for any age-restricted products in stores.
But despite the effort to curb underage e-cigarette use, Burns was reluctant to label the situation an “epidemic” or “crisis.” When asked by “CBS This Morning” co-host Tony Dokoupil if he would call the problem an epidemic, Burns replied, “I’m not gonna use the same words … others have used. But it’s big and concerning.”
“A crisis?” asked Dokoupil. “An emergency?”
“I think we need to move with speed and urgency, yeah,” Burns responded.
When asked how much Juul contributed to underage e-cigarette use, Burns said, “We don’t know specifically on that. But I’m sure, you know, a big portion of the problem is attributed to Juul, usage of our product.”
Burns said he wants parents to know that he’s “sorry that their kids are using the product. And I have empathy for them for what they’re going through, dealing with their kids tryin’ to go through any kind of difficulties, especially an addiction to a product that has nicotine in it.”
“So when you say ‘sorry,’ and you have said it before, sorry for what?” Dokoupil asked. “Was it an accident? Was it a mistake? How did this happen?”
“Well, I said I’m sorry for the situation they’re in,” Burns responded. “Again, there’s never been an intention–“
“You don’t think Juul caused this?” Dokoupil asked.
“Well, some people could have used our product, but there’s never an intent on the company’s part to target youth to grow our business,” Burns said. “That’s been the assertion.”
In response to claims that Juul specifically targeted children as customers, Burns pushed back, saying, “I don’t think our campaign was ever targeted to kids. We don’t need to target youth to grow our business, to be successful, and fulfill our mission.”
He also denied that the blame for the prevalence of teen e-cigarette use rests entirely with Juul – but emphasized that he wasn’t blaming the families of teen vapers, either. “I don’t wanna give any impression I’m blamin’ it on the families,” he said. “I think you’ve got a category-wide issue. We are, in part– we need to be part of the solution. We have to take an active leadership role in being part of the solution.”
Juul’s new verification system follows the company’s previous efforts to counter underage vaping: removing most flavors from stores, shutting down some social media accounts, and shifting its marketing to feature former smokers.
But despite Juul’s efforts, Burns isn’t confident that underage use will drop soon. “I think there’s other factors that come into play,” he said. “We’re the only manufacturer that’s taken flavors out of retail. There’s been an influx now of counterfeit and compatible products comin’ into the marketplace. Online is still a challenge as a channel.”
“So you think when the 2019 numbers come out, teen use, which is already at one-in-five high school kids, could go up again?” Dokoupil asked.
“I think it can go up,” Burns said. “Yeah, that’s a possibility.”