A popular e-cigarettee manufacturer, already being sued by the state of Minnesota for allegedly fueling a youth vaping epidemic, is now accused of trying to legitimize its business by recruiting public health researchers—a practice critics say is ripped directly from the Big Tobacco playbook, 5 INVESTIGATES has found.
Juul Labs Inc. faces investigations and lawsuits in dozens of states, including a lawsuit filed by the Minnesota Attorney General last year accusing the company of illegally marketing e-cigarettes to teenagers who cannot legally smoke.
As states began investigating Juul, 5 INVESTIGATES found the company had been trying to recruit public health researchers, including at least one from the University of Minnesota, to conduct studies with funding from Juul.
In a statement, Juul said it is no longer soliciting such research after a “broad review of the company’s practices” but declined to say why it stopped the practice.
Recruiting from the U of M
As part of a fellowship at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Pediatrics, researcher Michael Parks had just presented his latest study on youth and smoking at a conference in San Francisco last year when he received an e-mail from the director of medical affairs at Juul.
The e-mail mentioned “potential research opportunities” with Juul and Parks agreed to a phone call.
“They said ‘We’re interested in funding investigator-initiated research,'” Parks said. “And often, that comes with the connotation that it’s unbiased… I did question, what did that mean to them?”
A university spokesperson told 5 INVESTIGATES no research has been conducted by employees of the university using grant funds from the tobacco industry since 2015, but taking that kind of funding is not prohibited as long as employees disclose it and follow conflict of interest policies.
Parks said he ultimately declined the company’s offer after learning there would also be stipulations for him to continue his research with Juul’s money.
“As I interpreted what they were saying, (the research) did have to involve Juul in some form or fashion,” Parks said.
Other researchers from public institutions told 5 INVESTIGATES they also declined offers of funding or jobs from the company.
“Your moniker as an academic, your institution that you work for, your good name – they get to borrow from,” said research associate Yogi Hale with the University of California – San Francisco. “They’re basically vampirically sucking your reputation and trying to bolster theirs.”
Former Minnesota Attorney General Skip Humphrey compared Juul’s tactic of enlisting respected researchers to the practices of Big Tobacco going back to the 1950s.
“The reality is that it’s pretty much the same tactics,” said Humphrey, who helped negotiate a landmark $6.5 billion settlement with tobacco companies in 1998. “And the recruitment of professionals? That’s also what was happening.”
As part of that settlement, the tobacco industry had to make public a trove of internal documents detailing tactics that Humphrey says are now being replicated by a vaping industry facing similar scrutiny.
For example, 5 INVESTIGATES found a 1986 memo from the Tobacco Institute, which promoted the tobacco industry, discussing whether they could “replicate and improve” upon research from the University of Minnesota.
Juul under fire
A lawsuit filed against Juul by current Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison alleges the company’s marketing strategy also revived the “playbook used by traditional cigarette makers 50 years earlier.”
In a statement to 5 INVESTIGATES, a Juul spokesperson said the company “halted… television, print and digital product advertising” and that its participation in independent research is now limited to providing JUUL products to “scientific researchers who wish to study them.”
Juul declined requests to interview CEO K.C. Crosthwaite, but he recently testified at a congressional hearing on vaping in February.
“Over the past few years, trust in our company and category has eroded. We know some of our past actions have contributed to that erosion,” Crosthwaite said.
Juul has also not responded to questions about published reports that it recently hired several former employees of the Food and Drug Administration.
The company has until September to provide studies to the FDA about the health effects of Juul products, their appeal to young people, and whether the products actually have the potential to help smokers quit traditional cigarettes.
The outcome of those applications to the FDA could determine whether Juul can continue to sell its products in the United States.
READ JUUL’S FULL STATEMENT TO 5 INVESTIGATES:
Last year, JUUL Labs’ new leadership team conducted a broad review of the company’s practices and policies to ensure alignment with its aim of responsible leadership within the industry. As part of that ongoing process in the U.S., we are preparing comprehensive and scientifically rigorous Premarket Tobacco Product Applications, stopped the sale of JUUL products other than tobacco and menthol in November of last year, halted our television, print and digital product advertising and support the Administration’s final flavor policy.
Changes were also made to our Investigator-Initiated Research (IIR) program. The company no longer solicits IIR applications in the U.S. and they are limited to providing JUUL products to scientific researchers who wish to study them and have the relevant expertise and scientific credentials to conduct the proposed study in compliance with federal and local regulations.
We will continue to reset the vapor category and seek to earn the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and transition adult smokers from combustible cigarettes.
STATEMENT FROM UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA:
Board of Regents policy commits to academic freedom, which is a core part of how the University fulfills its mission. As part of that freedom, the University would not restrict faculty and staff from obtaining research funds from e-cigarette and tobacco companies.
The University does, however, require all researchers to adhere to the University’s conflict of interest policies. It’s through these policies that the University works to ensure all faculty and staff are held to the same, shared ethical standard. It’s one that requires any relationships with businesses be transparent, grounded in objectivity, and do not improperly influence professional judgment, their University responsibilities, or their performance of University-related activities.
A cursory search of University of Minnesota sponsored research projects from 2015 to the present found no grants awarded from the Foundation for a Smoke Free World, Altria, Philip Morris International AKA PMI, British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Japan Tobacco International, China Tobacco, or Juul.