By E.J. Mundell
TUESDAY, Nov. 13, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- Juul Labs, which commands 70 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette market, announced Tuesday that it would cease selling most flavored versions of its popular vaping pods in retail stores.
The company said it would also terminate its social media productions related to the flavored products.
The announcement comes after increasing pressure from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other critics, alarmed by the surging popularity among the young of the addictive, nicotine-laden devices.
Earlier in November, media reports suggested that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would soon ban sales of most flavored electronic cigarettes in retail stores and gas stations across the United States. That plan was expected to be announced later this week, The New York Times reported.
Juul's move on Tuesday appears to pre-empt that. It comes after the FDA conducted a raid on its headquarters in October, seeking documents suggesting the company aimed marketing directing at the young. Some states have initiated similar investigations, the Times said.
Kevin Burns is chief executive of San Francisco-based Juul. In a statement sent to media he said that, "Our intent was never to have youth use Juul. But intent is not enough. The numbers are what matter and the numbers tell us underage use of e-cigarettes is a problem."
Juul is not ceasing sale of all flavored products: According to the Times, the company is stopping retail orders for mango, fruit, creme and cucumber flavors, but not menthol, mint and tobacco flavors. Those products would still be sold at retail outlets that have invested in age-verification technology, Juul said.
The company said it was shutting down Facebook and Instagram accounts in the United States that promoted the use of the flavored devices.
The FDA has long sought to reduce teens' use of flavored e-cigarettes, thought to be especially alluring to young people who then become hooked on nicotine. The agency was also pressing for age-verification measures for online sales to prevent minors from buying the flavor pods.
Juul came under special scrutiny because the devices are easily used surreptitiously by teens. The pods resemble small computer flash drives, so students were using them in class as soon as teachers' backs were turned.
There were real health concerns tied to the products, however.
"I think that there's a perception that e-cigarettes are a safer alternative for kids," FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in a recent interview with the Times. "But it can lead to a lifelong addiction, and some percentage will migrate to combustible products."
So, "in order to close the on ramp to e-cigarettes for kids, we have to put in place some speed bumps for adults," Gottlieb said, referring to efforts such as the proposed ban.
The FDA first began its crackdown on flavored e-cigarettes earlier this year, as the number of teens using the products reached epidemic proportions. Use of Juul and other vaping devices has skyrocketed among teens over the past year, with more than 3 million middle and high school students now thought to use the products, according to unpublished government data.
Flavored versions of e-cigarettes -- including chicken and waffles, rocket Popsicle and "unicorn milk" -- have boosted sales among the young even further, experts contend.
"The availability of flavors in e-cigarettes is one of the top reasons that middle and high school students cite as their motivation for using e-cigarettes," said Patricia Folan, director of the Center for Tobacco Control at Northwell Health in Great Neck, N.Y. "Young people are more likely to try flavored e-cigarettes and consider them less harmful than tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes."
Responding to the trend, the FDA recently warned several e-cigarette makers to stop marketing to teenagers or risk being banned. Major companies were given 60 days to prove they could keep their devices away from minors, and the deadline is this weekend. Companies involved include Juul, RJR Vapor Co.'s Vuse, Imperial Brands' blu and devices made by Logic.
The FDA also warned 1,100 retailers to stop selling e-cigarettes to minors and fined some of them, the Times reported.