The leading e-cigarette company admitted in a regulatory filing this week that it knew about the dangerous levels of nicotine in one of its “juul” pods for three years before it began replacing them with new products.
The charge leveled against the maker of the popular electronic cigarette is part of a long-running lawsuit against the company that claims the product caused serious health issues, including dependence and addiction, and death in the families of its users.
At the time, the company repeatedly denied having any knowledge that the product contained significantly higher levels of nicotine than other e-cigarettes.
David Aushenker, who founded the company and remains its chairman, said that their were four reasons why they had previously maintained that Juul was safe: the average person who uses an e-cigarette is more addicted to smoking than using a combustible cigarette is to smoking tobacco, nicotine in an e-cigarette is absorbed quickly, and nicotine is derived from nicotine plants, unlike tobacco.
He also told Bloomberg he believed nicotine in an e-cigarette was not “toxic” and that any deaths were “happening off premises,” including “inside homes, cars, or animals.”
The fact that Juul would know about the problem years before it took any significant steps to fix it illustrates how the rapid proliferation of electronic cigarettes has left consumers in the dark about the real risks, said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
“This revelations should be embarrassing for these companies,” he said. “People’s lives are at risk, and yet they keep doing what they are doing.”
According to the court papers filed last year by the families of five teenagers who died from vaping, some of the fatal findings were as follows:
In a teenager’s death, authorities found that just nine days before her death the teenager’s parents were at the Juul factory, showing the manufacturer new patches that had been made specifically for their teenage daughter. They took her mother to a waiting room, walked out, and when they returned, had learned that her daughter’s application to Juul had been declined.
In another death, a teenager who died of sudden e-cigarette toxicity on her way to a sleepover in 2016 was not only smoking Juul but was carrying a sleek and fun version of the Juul that he wore around his neck during his last day of life.
If people knew what Juul looked like and what it really was, they might not be so bent on vaping for fun, or at least smoking cigarettes when they vape, said Katherine Morton, vice president of Tobacco Prevention for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
“These companies should not be claiming that they are helping people with a great quality product if they knew the product that they sold is dangerous,” she said.
The company has offered some answers to safety concerns recently, saying its products are made with high-strength materials that prevent combustion and that its pods contain less than one-tenth of the nicotine of tobacco cigarettes.
“We completely take responsibility for being in the business of selling e-cigarettes and making them as safe as possible,” Mr. Aushenker said. “We are committed to replacing the battery and metal components of any product where there is a concern that the nicotine levels in the pod might be too high.”
In September, the Food and Drug Administration called on e-cigarette makers to voluntarily reduce nicotine levels in their products, and Mr. Aushenker said that Juul has done just that, removing 12 of the 16 products it had on the market.
“What this tells us is that our commitment is true and focused,” he said.