JUUL – the e-cigarette company that is drawing fire for its marketing — announced Wednesday that it has replaced its CEO, Howard Lord, with a tobacco executive from Reynolds American.
The company said its parent company, Juul Labs, had appointed James Varga, who previously led Reynolds’s Newport cigarette brand, as its new chief executive.
“I am confident that James will take Juul from strength to strength,” Richard Aldrich, chairman of the Juul Labs board, said in a statement.
“During his time with Reynolds, James created a specialty tobacco business that has grown to over $1 billion in annual revenue, doubled their number of brands, and is now poised to build on their success in e-vapor by increasing share of their retail distribution.”
Varga could not be reached for comment.
Last week, Juul’s former chief executive, Lord, filed a lawsuit in state court in California, claiming that Juul’s leadership had defamed him by alleging that he helped design the e-cigarettes.
In his suit, Lord said the allegations were “false, misleading and overbroad.” Juul declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Juul launched in 2013 with advertising that positioned the e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes.
But a July study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said Juul e-cigarettes were actually more harmful than traditional cigarettes. The study was first reported by the Guardian.
New Jersey legislators have proposed legislation that would force Juul to disclose all its ingredient lists and disclose the data collected from all its marketing efforts, including pictures of smokers puffing on e-cigarettes. The company has not responded to those measures.
The lawsuit called such measures unnecessary.
“To see egregious behavior and violation of our freedom of speech in the hands of such a large tobacco company is a real disquieting message,” Lord said in an interview.
He added: “Most people don’t understand what a tobacco company is, let alone the damage of our harm reduction, educational campaigns around tobacco. And tobacco companies with government backing cause an undercurrent of fear that they’re going to attack this. But those are empty threats.”
Meanwhile, experts believe the products have caused some young people to try regular cigarettes for the first time, or to continue, at a younger age.
“We are seeing these kids starting to smoke for the first time at a more aggressive rate than we’ve seen in the past,” said Adam Rapport, director of the Global Tobacco Prevention Project at the University of California at San Francisco.
“And it’s partially attributable to the fact that these products are marketed with very aggressive promotional programs, including candy flavors, that make it very attractive,” he said.
Juul has set up a nonprofit with the explicit goal of promoting its products as a “nicotine-free option.” Lord has called smoking an “obstacle to opportunities” and said Juul and other vaping devices offer smokers “a less stressful, more beautiful and fulfilling experience than traditional cigarettes.”
But Elizabeth Draper, a spokeswoman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a public health advocacy group, said that “this isn’t just tobacco, it’s a nicotine business.”
“They’re targeting young people and making money,” she said. “That should be troubling to anyone.”