A federal court sided with the health groups in 2019, compelling the FDA to start enforcing its authorization process for e-cigarettes companies. The FDA gave e-cigarette makers a deadline of 2020 to apply for authorization, or be forced off shelves. (That deadline was later pushed back, because of Covid.) Juul had already been on sale for four years, and by then made up 75 percent of the e-cigarette market. But its future began to look cloudy.
Juul now had to pivot. The company, as Jamie Ducharme writes in her 2019 book Big Vape, modeled itself after a typical San Francisco startup, where people would “skateboard back and forth across the office’s concrete floors and shoot each other with foam Nerf darts.” Many early employees, like founders Monsees and Bowen, had design and marketing backgrounds. Juul now had to adapt to regulatory scrutiny, producing extensive reports about its product’s components, ingredients, and health risks to win FDA authorization.
The company started hiring people to handle government relations and manage public affairs. It also crippled its own product lineup, pulling its most popular flavors—such as mango and fruit medley—from the shelves to leave only menthol, mint, and tobacco pods. The company’s announcement of the news quoted then CEO K. C. Crosthwaite pledging to “reset the vapor category by earning the trust of society and working cooperatively with regulators, policymakers, and stakeholders.”
Many US lawmakers were unimpressed. A spate of mysterious lung injuries linked to other vaping companies further tarnished the new industry’s reputation. In 2019, San Francisco banned all vaping products that had not been reviewed by the FDA—preventing Juul from selling its products in its hometown. By the end of the year, Congress had approved legislation to raise the national age for e-cigarette sales from 18 to 21.
None of that has threatened Juul quite as much as the FDA, which began to take big swings at the vaping market. In 2020 it ordered a halt on sales of all vaping products with sweet and fruity flavors, as Juul had appeared to anticipate, and in 2021 it denied marketing approval to more than 55,000 flavored e-cigarette products.
Finally, in June of this year, the FDA came for Juul, denying its own marketing application and ordering its products off the market. While the official reasoning said the company provided inadequate toxicology data, FDA commissioner Robert M. Califf noted in a statement that Juul may have “played a disproportionate role in the rise in youth vaping.”
Even if Juul survives, its moment as a disruptive market leader may have passed. Jeong, the Cornell graduate, says his peers stopped using Juuls when the company discontinued its popular flavors. People liked mint, which remained on the shelves, but no one wanted to puff on a tobacco-flavored Juul.
Rather than dropping their vaping habit, his friends moved on to other brands that emerged to pick up Juul’s declining market share. One of them, Fume, still sells flavors like pineapple, which Jeong describes as “drinking a piña colada,” thanks to a new regulatory loophole. The FDA’s ban applies to flavored vape cartridges, like Juul’s pods, but not disposable e-cigarettes, which come precharged and prefilled. By 2020 the disposable Puff Bar, with flavors like Banana Ice and Blue Razz, had replaced Juul as the most popular vaping device among teens.