Marlboro Maker Altria Supports Flavor Ban
Juul-Marlboro Strategic Alliance
When Marlboro maker Altria purchased a 35 percent stake in Juul, they hitched their wagon to a company that controls over 70 percent of the ecig market. Juul was expected to benefit from the years of lobbying experience that Altria has accrued defending cigarettes from regulations. This combination has the potential to reshape the vaping industry.
There are a few obvious ways that these two industry titans could work together. Juul could include inserts for their products in Marlboro cigarettes and would have access to Altria’s extensive shelf space. This last possibility lead to the FDA clashing with Altria-Juul this winter. Altria’s formidable PR and lobbying skills will also be used to benefit Juul, a company with a target on their back thanks to what the FDA frames as a teen vaping epidemic.
CEO of Altria Supports Flavor Ban
Howard Willard, Chair and CEO of Altria Group, laid their plans bare in a presentation to Consumer Analysts Group of New York (CAGNY). Willard’s presentation is available here. In a section titled “Further Altria Actions to Address Youth Epidemic”, a blueprint for how Juul can use new FDA regulations on ecigs to lock in their advantage is provided:
“Encourage FDA to take industry-wide action by banning retail and vape store sales of all non-traditional flavors until the youth issue is otherwise addressed, such as by the use of advanced age verification technology or premarket authorization.”
The irony is that Altria will continue to resist efforts to ban menthol flavored cigarettes, but would prefer if this freedom is not extended to e-juice makers.
Is Smartphone Age Verification Juul’s Next Move?
Was Willard simply referring to the mandatory use of top-notch age verification software such as Veratad, a policy already in place at Vapor4Life? The FDA has already made this a requirement and proposed a ban on the retail sales of non-tobacco flavors in late 2018. Certainly, Juul is a strong position as the industry leader in sales and would benefit from the FDA thwarting potential competitors.
There is also the possibility Willard was describing regulations that will favor Juul’s next generation of Bluetooth enabled devices. A device synched to a smartphone would require FDA approval, but Juul has already dumped tens of millions of dollars into its development. The device would be linked to a single smartphone and not work when the phone is out of range. It would also prevent their devices from working in specific areas like schools, a technology called geofencing.
An earlier slide titled “Due Diligence Learnings” contained several relevant bullet points. It described Juul’s “attractive product pipeline” and says that Juul is “positioned for long-term leadership globally.” According to The Verge, Juul plans on releasing a new Bluetooth nic salt vaping system in the first half of 2019 in Israel and the UK.
Minors won’t be the only ones locked out if this approach works out as planned. Competitors without a Bluetooth app and compatibility would also be left out in the cold. Juul would probably benefit from Altria’s guidance navigating the myriad privacy concerns and public relations fallout that a Bluetooth vaping device could spark.
But the benefits are tremendous, at least for them. Devices and disposable pods would require registration through the app and detailed data could be collected on users of a Bluetooth Juul. All under the auspices of protecting the children.
Vaping Technology Association Blasts Altria
The Vaping Technology Association (VTA) strongly disagreed with Altria’s approach. Their six point response has been consistent for three years and is not colored by the many vaping myths that currently color the public discourse on e-cigarettes.
- Flavor Bans and/or Restrictions are Unwarranted:
Banning or restricting the sale of flavors is the wrong approach. Until science demonstrates otherwise, neither FDA nor any other governmental entity should act to ban or limit the availability and accessibility of flavors on the market to the detriment of adult smokers seeking to quit combustible cigarettes.
- Appeal of Flavors is Subjective:
The appeal of particular flavors is subjective and not the reason most youth choose to initiate electronic cigarettes. Sound science does not support a plan that tries to categorize flavors as offerings which “should” or “should not” be sold.
- Focus Should Be on Prohibiting Inappropriate Marketing of Flavors:
Prohibiting inappropriate marketing should be the focus of efforts to address the increase in youth experimentation with electronic cigarettes. VTA has introduced legislation in several states to affirmatively impose reasonable marketing restrictions.
- VTA Marketing Standards:
VTA has repeatedly encouraged industry to adopt the VTA Marketing Standards for Membership which would serve to limit both access to and appeal of vapor products to youth.
- Flavors are Critical to Smoking Cessation:
Adult smokers looking to vapor products as an off-ramp from combustible cigarettes deserve access to a wide variety of flavored products to allow for individualized choice in finding the product that works best for them. VTA presented a clear and unequivocal scientific case to FDA showing that flavors help adult smokers quit.
- Flavor Bans Directly Threaten Vape Shops:
A decision to ban flavors from brick-and-mortar vape shops, even temporarily, will eliminate over 10,000 small businesses and un-employ tens of thousands of Americans that work for them.