Juul has been in the news nonstop since well before the end of last year. Just the day before, I watched in disgust as members of Congress called into question the efficacy of devices like e-cigarettes and their role in helping smokers quit traditional cigarettes.
I entered into a state of mental preparedness for the second day of testimony. This portion of the hearing featured actual executives from Juul Labs to offer testimony related to the youth vaping epidemic and the company’s alleged role in propagating it.
U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, the chairman of the Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee under the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, opened the second day of testimony by pontificating on the company’s communication strategies and marketing approaches.
This quickly set the tone for the hearing, featuring two witnesses from Juul Labs and one from the tobacco control lobby.
On the first day of the committee hearing, the majority of the experts, activists, and witnesses that spoke were openly anti-vaping. Grassroots group Parents Against Vaping E-cigarettes (PAVE) and anti-vaping researchers spoke on how “Big Tobacco 2.0” directly targets youth. On the opposing side was a lone researcher, Dr. Raymond Niaura of New York University’s College of Global Public Health.
Niaura spoke on the fact that while vaping among youth is a problem that should be addressed, the rates of vaping were not as prevalent as insinuated by Congress and public health regulators such as the FDA.
“While an increase in use is of concern, we were relieved to see that our analysis showed that most adolescent vaping was occasional and that most regular use was concentrated in adolescents who had already been smokers,” Niaura, a respected researcher, testified. “We found that about three-quarters of vapers reported using other tobacco products, such as cigarettes. Most of the increase in vaping, therefore, was seen in youth who were already using other tobacco products.”
The first day became further divisive when anti-vaping activists called upon their own children to offer unsubstantiated claims that Juul representatives speaking about youth vaping prevention called their products totally safe without supervision from teachers and their school’s administrators.
Testimony from these youth is the only substantive statements regarding these claims. If you jump to the second day of testimony, this was a point of argument for the Democrats.
For Juul on the second day, co-founder and chief product officer James Monsees and chief administrative officer Ashley Gould spoke on behalf of the company. Suprinsginly, CEO Kevin Burns was not present on the second day of testimony. During his panel testimony, Monsees alluded to the fact that Burns was not invited to testify saying that the company leader has a better “pulse” on the various functions of the dynamic company.
I reached out to Juul spokesperson Ted Kwong to confirm this; however, no response was provided.
Monsees was the first to testify on the second day. He fielded questions from both Republican and Democratic members ranging from the origins of the company to the perceived youth-targeted marketing practices the company adopted as a means to target legal consumers.
For much of his questioning, Democrats offered loaded questions that the head of the product development efforts for the company might not be privy too. I mention this because it is essential to outline the treatment of Monsees, in particular. Monsees, the former CEO of the company, was around during the time of the Democrats’ accusations being a founder. However, no person would expect a product designer to be fully aware of his company’s government relations and public policy efforts after Burns took over as CEO. That did not stop the loaded questions.
Monsees concluded his testimony upon a brief break that allowed for the transition to a new set of witnesses.
Matthew Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, testified to the subcommittee that companies like Juul cannot be trusted due to the appealing nature of their products to youth.
“We are past the time when we should trust a cigarette company or an e-cigarette company to act responsibly and in a way that benefits public health,” Myers testified.
His remarks speak to the narrative that the Democrats on the committee supported during the hearing. Such a description focuses on how Juul has replicated the strategies of big tobacco companies in trying to market to illegal consumer classes directly.
Juul’s Gould faced simultaneous questioning with Myers. Initially, it was my understanding that Gould and Monsees were going to testify together. This was not the case, given the fact that Myers was used by Democrats as an apologetic collaborator to grill Gould on topics that she was not aware of, not a part of the company at the time to speak to, or already repeatedly stated in prior responses.
Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, noted that the company has offered over 180,000 pages of documents to the subcommittee to review.
While I am paraphrasing, the conservative lawmaker noted that this was unprecedented cooperation from a private firm ordered to appear before such a committee.
Meadows, with Ranking Member Michael Cloud, R-Texas, and all of the members of the subcommittee, nonetheless, presided over a hearing that speaks to the inaccurate perception of the vaping industry.
While the Republicans on the committee were clearly sympathetic to Juul and the vaping industry, I believe that they did not offer the defense expected of people who are apparently “pro-business.” Between the present yet limited support from the Republicans and the Democrats’ unbelievable grandstanding, the hearing was by no means constructive.
Gregory Conley, the president of the American Vaping Association sent me his reactions to the hearing. I am posting them in their entirety to accurately reflect the frustration industry advocates are dealing with.
These are his comments, unedited:
“Going into this week, it was readily apparent that this was going to be nothing more than a sham hearing designed to give Congressional Democrats an opportunity to insult and belittle JUUL and the entire vaping products industry. That is exactly what this turned out to be.