A Reuters investigation has uncovered that throughout the developmental stages of Juul, employees and developers expressed concern over Juul’s nicotine potency and addictiveness. Juul failed to heed these concerns.
Former employees at Juul claim that Juul’s central goal was to captivate users by creating an e-cigarette that provided high levels of nicotine without the harsh taste that other e-cigarettes delivered. According to these employees, Juul’s development team found that most e-cigarettes failed because they did not provide a high enough concentration of nicotine and/or the vapors left a harsh taste in the user’s mouth. To combat these issues, Juul developers groomed through old tobacco-company research and patents and found a solution by adding organic acids to nicotine, which allows for higher doses of nicotine with a smooth taste.
According to employees, Juul developers and employees toyed with different combinations of organic acids and nicotine, testing the product on themselves and on strangers in public, until they found the perfect combination of ingredients.
The final formula delivered such a high dose of nicotine per puff without the negative effects of high dose nicotine (harsh taste, shakiness, and vomiting), that developers were concerned that the number of nicotine users could inhale at once with Juul could pose dangerous health risks.
In 2014, Juul founders applied for a patent for a mechanism that would alert users or disable the device entirely when the user inhaled a dose of nicotine that reached a certain threshold which made it dangerous.
Chenyue Xing, a former scientist for Juul, said that one idea was to turn off the Juul device for thirty minutes after the user had taken a certain amount of puffs. Xing said that the main issue at hand was that, unlike combustible cigarettes, a Juul never burns out. This makes it harder for the user to determine how much nicotine they have inhaled and when is a good time to take a break. “You hope that they get what they want, and they stop. We didn’t want to introduce a new product with a stronger addictive power.”
But although Juul recognized this potential issue, they never implemented such a restrictive mechanism to limit nicotine intake.
Even early on, this unrestricted level of nicotine was cause for concern for some Juul employees who felt that the ease at which users could consume nicotine with Juul would result in addiction.
Other employees became concerned with Juul’s appeal to youth. According to one ex-company manager, after Juul’s market release in 2015, company reps received a huge influx of calls from teens asking where they could buy more Juuls and Juul pods.
The high frequency of calls from inquiring teens sparked an internal debate at Juul. Co-founder James Monsees was one of the executives who argued to take immediate action to limit youth sales. Other executives and investors, such as healthcare entrepreneur Hoyoung Huh, argued that Juul could not be faulted for Juul causing youth nicotine addiction because the company never directly advertised to teens.
“Clearly, people internally had an issue with it,” the manager told Reuters. “But a lot of people had no problem with 500 percent year-over-year growth.”
Juul has since come under heavy scrutiny from lawsuits and lawmakers who say that Juul directly targeted to youth – a claim that directly challenges Huh’s own claim.
Juul eventually made efforts to curtail youth sales in April 2018, two days after the FDA announced that it would be taking action to stop underage sales of Juul.
Reuters investigators also talked to two prominent tobacco researchers who said that they warned Juul executives and developers about the potential for youth Juul abuse.
Neal Benowitz, professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, was one of the tobacco researchers. Benowitz said that he warned Juul’s director of scientific affairs, Gal Cohen, that rampant teen use could wreak havoc on Juul.
“Look, the one thing you have to do is make sure that this doesn’t get into the hands of young people,” Benowitz recalled telling Cohen.” If it spreads among kids, this product could be dead.”