A federal court sided with health groups in 2019, forcing the FDA to begin enforcing its approval process for e-cigarette companies. The FDA gave e-cigarette manufacturers a deadline of 2020 to apply for a permit or be forced off the shelves. (That deadline was later pushed back due to Covid.) Juul had already been on sale for four years and had by that time made up 75 percent of the e-cigarette market. But its future began to look bleak.
Juul had now to turn. The company that Jamie Ducharme writes in his 2019 book Great Vape, modeled himself after a typical San Francisco startup where people would “skateboard back and forth across the office concrete floors and shoot each other with foam Nerf darts.” Many early employees, such as founders Monsees and Bowen, had design and marketing backgrounds. Juul now had to adapt regulatory control and produce comprehensive reports on the product’s components, ingredients and health risks to win FDA approval.
The company began hiring people to handle government relations and manage public affairs. It also paralyzed its own product range and pulled its most popular flavors – such as mango and fruit mix – off the shelves to leave only menthol, mint and tobacco pods. The company’s announcement of the news quoted then-CEO KC Crosthwaite promises to “reset the steam category by earning community trust and working with regulators, policy makers and stakeholders.”
Many U.S. lawmakers were not impressed. A wave of mysterious lung damage associated with other vaping companies further tarnished the reputation of the new industry. In 2019, San Francisco banned all vaping products that had not been reviewed by the FDA – preventing Juul from selling his products in his hometown. By the end of the year, Congress had approved legislation to raise the national age for selling e-cigarettes from 18 to 21.
None of this has threatened Juul as much as the FDA, which began to take big swings in the vaping market. In 2020, it ordered one stop sales of all vaping products with sweet and fruity flavors that Juul seemed to anticipate, and in 2021, it denied marketing authorization to more than 55,000 flavored e-cigarette products.
Finally, in June this year, the FDA came for Juul, rejected its own marketing application and ordered its products from the market. While the official justification said the company provided insufficient toxicological data, FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf noted in a statement that Juul may have “played a disproportionate role in the rise in juvenile delinquency.”
Although Juul survives, its moment as a disruptive market leader may be over. Jeong, the Cornell candidate, says his peers stopped using Juuls when the company discontinued its popular variants. People liked mint that was left on the shelves, but no one wanted to blow on a Juul with tobacco flavor.
Instead of dropping their vaping habits, his friends moved on to other brands that popped up to pick up Juul’s declining market share. One of them, Fume, still sells flavors like pineapple, which Jeong describes as “drinking a piña colada,” thanks to a new loophole in the legislation. The FDA’s ban applies to flavored vape cartridges, such as Juul’s pods, but not even disposable e-cigarettes, which come pre-filled and refilled. By 2020, the one-time Puff Bar, with flavors like Banana Ice and Blue Razz, had replaced Juul as most popular vaping unity among teenagers.