On November 13, JUUL Labs, the company behind America’s most popular vaping product, announced a stringent new online age-verification system.
The move comes under the pressure of a US Food and Drug Administration investigation into the company and raging controversy over Juul’s relationship with teenagers, which Filter has extensively covered. The FDA probe launched in April “to make sure JUUL, and any other e-cigarettes or tobacco products, aren’t getting into kids’ hands in the first place,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
Juul’s new measures are intended to make it much harder for people under 21—the age minimum set in 2017—to purchase vaping products. As a new video (below) explains, a potential customer must now create a profile that includes name, date of birth, permanent address and the last four digits of their social security number. Juul verifies this information with third-party public records to confirm that the person is at least 21. A two-factor authentication system, using a text message to verify a user’s identity, will also be implemented “by year’s end.”
If the customer’s age cannot be verified or they didn’t provide their social security number, then they must upload a valid government-issued ID card. Eventually, users will be required to upload a “real-time” image of themselves to be matched with their ID.
Tobacco harm reductionists say that such restrictions on nicotine products estimated to be 95 percent safer than cigarettes have negative public-health consequences. David Sweanor, an industry expert and chair of the Advisory Board for Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa, criticizes Juul’s FDA-driven plan on two fronts.
For one, the move “protect[s] cigarettes and disproportionately harms disadvantaged people,” Sweanor tells Filter. He points out that people with limited resources seeking tobacco harm reduction products will be less likely to have “multiple levels of verification, the luxury of being able to plan ahead, the use of a credit card, availability of government identification and the ability to upload such a document.”
Sweanor also argues that the restrictions contradict their intention to protect underage consumers. “If there really are many people addicted to low-risk nicotine, removal of the low-risk products they prefer virtually guarantees many will move to cigarettes,” he says. “This is like claiming that the risk of clean needles is that they might lead people to switching to dirty needles, and the solution is to ban the clean ones!”
Juul has additionally said that it will now sell four flavored pods (Cucumber, Mango, Creme and Fruit) exclusively online. Vaping stores will still stock Mint, Classic Tobacco and Menthol flavors. They’ll be allowed to sell the other flavors once they implement age-verification technology of their own. Juul has also deleted its social media accounts, which have been accused of targeting youth.
The move comes just days ahead of the FDA’s expected roll-out of a plan to ban the sale of e-cigarettes from convenience stores and gas stations.
For Sweanor, the FDA’s approach to youth nicotine use is irrational and counterproductive. “Were the FDA to pursue a rational strategy, it would be deadly cigarettes, rather than their safer substitutes, that were disadvantaged,” he says. “The agency would also be going to tremendous lengths to inform smokers about relative risks. It would certainly stop misleading advertising campaigns and the funding of ideologues posing as scientists.”
Photo credit: Vaping360.com