The e-cigarette Juul burst onto the market in 2015 with the purported goal of making cigarette smoking obsolete.
On Wednesday morning, we learned that 35 percent of the vape company had been purchased by the cigarette maker Altria — the parent company of Philip Morris USA — making Juul’s value a staggering $38 billion.
That makes Juul Labs Inc. more valuable than Airbnb and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, according to Bloomberg News.
As part of the deal, Juul is distributing a whopping $2 billion in bonuses to its 1,500 employees, averaging $1.3 million per person, someone close to the transaction told Vox. Yes, you read that right: an average bonus of $1.3 million per employee. The bonuses were first reported by CNBC. The amount each employee gets will depend on how long they have been with the company and how much stock they own.
A couple of things to note about this news:
- Juul’s stated mission is “improving the lives of the one billion adult smokers.” But the company is currently in hot water for helping drive an epidemic of teen vaping, which public health officials worry has hooked a new generation on nicotine — and potentially cigarettes too.
- Given this mission, it’s difficult to understand why Juul would allow itself to be purchased by a cigarette maker, and one that denied for decades that smoking causes cancer.
While Altria’s CEO Howard Willard has said of the investment, “We are taking significant action to prepare for a future where adult smokers overwhelmingly choose non-combustible products over cigarettes,” public health advocates see it another way.
“Altria has no interest in reducing the number of people who smoke cigarettes,” said Matthew Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in a statement. “They see Juul as their failsafe in case the cigarette market keeps declining so that they remain profitable no matter what happens.”
- The massive Altria deal and million-dollar payout to Juul employees suggest the future for the company is very bright, and that regulators — despite their tough talk — may have a hard time curtailing a growing epidemic of e-cigarette use in teens, who are disproportionately using these products.
27 percent of high schoolers vaped recently
If adult smoking were being replaced by vaping, that’d be good news from a public health perspective. But what appears to be happening instead is that nonsmoking youth are taking up vaping at alarming rates.
According to a new National Institutes of Health survey, which has tracked substance use among American adolescents, the number of high school seniors who say they vaped nicotine in the past 30 days has doubled since 2017 — from 11 percent to nearly 21 percent.
That’s the largest increase ever recorded for any substance in the survey’s 43-year history. And it means a quarter of 12th-grade students are now using, at least occasionally, a nicotine device that’s so new, we have no idea what the long-term health impact of using it will be.
The number of 12th graders who used any type of e-cigarette in the last 30 days was even higher: 27 percent. By contrast, fewer than 5 percent of adults currently use e-cigarettes.
The NIH survey added to the mounting pile of evidence that we may have a vaping problem in youth. Earlier this year, we learned that the number of high schoolers who used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days increased by about 75 percent since 2017. That followed anecdotal reports from high schools suggesting vaping has exploded on campuses across the country.
Young people’s extraordinarily rapid uptake of nicotine-delivery devices is one of the reasons Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued a rare advisory this week, calling for new regulations that might curb youth vaping, including taxes and indoor vaping bans.
It’s also why the FDA has said it’ll crack down on Juul and the makers of e-cigarettes targeting youth. But “FDA hasn’t really done that much yet,” said Michael Eriksen, dean of the school of public health at Georgia State University. “They have announced plans and vision, but regulation takes too much time.”
If the Altria deal isn’t evidence that there’s a serious new public health crisis — one that regulators are already late responding to — I’m not sure what is.