Juul comes under fire for allegedly hijacking teen anti-smoking curriculum

"You’re nothing but a marketer of poison and your target has been young people," one congressman told executives during a hearing Thursday.
James Monsees, co-founder of Juul Labs, stands to be sworn in during the House Committee on Oversight and Reform's hearing "Examining JUUL's Role in the Youth Nicotine Epidemic" on Capitol Hill on July 25, 2019.
James Monsees, co-founder of Juul Labs, stands to be sworn in during the House Committee on Oversight and Reform's hearing "Examining JUUL's Role in the Youth Nicotine Epidemic" on Capitol Hill on July 25, 2019.NBC News

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By Erika Edwards

One of the most popular e-cigarette companies, Juul, stole material from Stanford University's renowned tobacco prevention toolkit, and used it to get its marketing messages to kids, one of the toolkit's authors claims.

"They took a number of slides and talking points, and they never asked permission," said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a professor and expert in teen vaping at Stanford University who helped design the kit.

Halpern-Felsher told NBC News that Juul altered the toolkit, deleting portions that addressed e-cigarette flavors, how e-cigarette companies market to kids, as well as how nicotine influences the brain.

The accusations came as two executives from Juul, co-founder and chief product officer James Monsees, and chief administrative officer Ashley Gould, testified in front of the U.S. House Oversight and Reform's Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee in a hearing on the e-cigarette company's youth marketing practices.

"You took a Stanford researcher's work and and changed it to fit your needs," Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., said to Monsees.

"You’re nothing but a marketer of poison and your target has been young people," he said sharply.

DeSaulnier also asked Monsees whether it's true Stanford had sent Juul a letter demanding the company stop using its toolkit. Monsees testified he was "unaware of anything along those lines."

In a statement to NBC News, a Juul spokesman clarified that "Stanford’s toolkit was posted on its website for public use to fill the gap in public health education. We corresponded with Stanford and removed requested materials from our curriculum guide. Similarities remained because in Stanford’s curriculum, publicly-available sources were cited, and we included many of those same themes in our guide."

Emails Stanford University shared with NBC News suggest Juul offered to pay schools up to $20,000 to teach the curriculum as part of an anti-tobacco education seminar.

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A representative from Juul Labs, Inc. told the subcommittee the company once had a program to educate students about tobacco addiction and prevention.

"When we started seeing media reports of youth using Juul products in 2017, we engaged with education experts, including several retired superintendents and principals, and they advised us and helped us to create a curriculum and advised reaching out to schools," Ashley Gould, chief administrative officer at Juul, said at the hearing.

Gould said Juul discontinued the program in the fall of 2018 after it was determined the program was "not well received."

On Wednesday, two New York City teenagers told the subcommittee that in 2017, a Juul representative went to their school under the guise of encouraging students to stay away from tobacco, in the form of a seminar focused on mental health and addiction. The boys said they were in 9th grade at the time.

"Once you get a young person to look at something and ask questions from an adult who seems to be an authority figure, you’ve got them interested," Halpern-Felsher said.

"Teachers are told to leave the room so it's a safe space for kids to talk," said Caleb Mintz, 17. Mintz told the subcommittee that the representative repeatedly told the students Juul was "totally safe."

"For my classmates who were already vaping, it was a sigh of relief because now they were able to vape without any concern," Mintz said.

Teen vaping has surged in popularity in recent years. In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 78 percent increase in high school students using electronic cigarettes from 2017 to 2018, and an almost 50 percent increase among middle school students.

A Senate bill that has bipartisan support would raise the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. The legislation would include e-cigarettes and has the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose home state of Kentucky is one of the nation's biggest suppliers of tobacco.

Eighteen states have already raised the age to buy tobacco to 21. They are Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, as well as Washington, D.C.

The age minimum is important because virtually all adult smokers had their first cigarette as teenagers, according to the American Lung Association.

On Thursday, Monsees repeatedly told lawmakers that Juul's main mission is to help adults quit smoking, and the company is committed to getting its products away from children.

Monsees outlined steps Juul had taken in an effort to curb youth access to its products, including pulling some flavored Juul pods, as they're called, from stores. But the mint flavor popular among teens remained on store shelves.

Vaping advocates insist e-cigarettes are crucial in smokers' efforts to quit combustible cigarettes, which are well known to cause disease and death.

"This set of issues — both youth tobacco nicotine use and adult smoking — have been portrayed as at odds with one another and they really should not be," said Dr. Raymond Niaura, a clinical psychologist in the College of Global Public Health at New York University, during Wednesday's testimony.

"We in the public health community and Congress ought to find ways where we can do both," he added. "I think we're smart enough to figure out how."

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