E-cigarette maker Juul Labs announced Thursday it will suspend sales of most of its flavored products, including mango, fruit and cucumber. These types of flavors are considered an on-ramp to vaping for teenagers.
The move comes as the industry faces immense scrutiny. Several states have instituted bans on flavored products, and the Trump administration has signaled that a federal ban may be in the works.
Juul Labs new CEO K.C. Crosthwaite said the company is focused on "earning the trust of society" and is working to "combat underage use while providing an alternative to adult smokers," according to a company release announcing the change.
At a time when 25% of high school seniors surveyed in the U.S. say they've vaped within the last 30 days, the company is also under pressure to limit marketing and advertising to youth.
Juul's move to suspend flavors comes the same day that a small non-profit group, Center for Environmental Health, announced a legally-binding agreement of its lawsuit with the company that will limit Juul's marketing to kids and teens in specific ways.
For instance, Juul cannot advertise at sporting events or concerts that allow people under the age 21. The company may not pay for or permit company employees to appear at schools. And, the company can't use models in their ads that are under the age of 28.
In a statement to NPR, a Juul spokesperson wrote "we agree that no youth should use JUUL products and we are committed to combating underage use." The statement goes on to say that this "settlement affirms voluntarily responsible marketing practices that JUUL Labs has had in place."
The company says it does not market to youth. "Our products exist solely to help adult smokers find an alternative to combustible cigarettes," the spokesperson concludes.
But the CEO of the Center for Environmental Health, Michael Green says the settlement can help hold Juul accountable.
"We don't trust them, we think that their entire model is based on addicting a new generation of young people," Green says. "The fact that [the agreement is] court-enforceable means that we are going to watch them very closely — and if they violate it by one inch we can go back to court and we can force them to stop."
The settlement is enforceable only in California — and only for a finite period. Public health experts say it's a step in the right direction, but more action from federal regulators is needed to rein in the epidemic of teen vaping.
"The tobacco industry has a long history of making loud, public pronouncements and then failing to follow through," says Paul Billings, the senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association.
Billings says the federal government needs to remove flavored e-cigarette products from the market. And he says the Food and Drug Administration, the agency that has regulatory authority, needs to act. "FDA has been dragging its feet for more than a decade," Billings says. "It's past time for FDA to enforce the law to provide oversight over e-cigarette products."
As the concern over the vaping-related lung illnesses has grown this year, there's renewed focus on the wider epidemic of teen vaping. And many Americans seem to be in favor of federal action — according to the results of a new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
"When it comes to banning the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, 52 percent [of respondents] were in support of a ban," says Liz Hamel, director of public opinion and survey research at KFF. The poll also found that about half of respondents also support a ban on sales of all e-cigarettes.
Some anti-smoking advocates say Juul's voluntary suspension of its flavored products may have minimal impact, given that the company plans to continue to sell mint and menthol-flavored e-cigarettes.
Robin Koval, CEO and president of Truth Initiative, said in a statement that mint and menthol — which Juul still plans to sell — are among the most popular flavors for youth. "We also know, as does the tobacco industry, that menthol has been and continues to be the starter flavor of choice for young cigarette users," she added.
In a statement, Mike Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and philanthropist, called Juul's move to suspend flavors "too little and too late."
Bloomberg Philanthropies launched its "Protect Kids: Fight Flavored E-Cigarettes" initiative last month. "Juul's decision to keep mint- and menthol-flavored e-cigarettes on the shelves is a page right out of the tobacco industry's playbook, " Bloomberg said.
There is evidence that vaping has hooked millions of teenagers on nicotine, a very addictive compound that may be harmful to the teenage brain.
And, there's some evidence that teens get addicted to nicotine faster by vaping, than by smoking cigarettes. Stan Glantz, a professor of medicine at U.C. San Franciso who has studied tobacco, says one reason may be the use of the nicotine salts in the newest generation of vaping products. "It allows kids to inhale a much higher dose of nicotine per puff," Glantz says.
And this can make it harder to kick the habit.