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Juul's CEO Steps Down Amid Controversy Over Vaping


The chief executive of the country's best-known vaping company, Juul, is stepping down. And a planned merger between two tobacco giants linked to the company was called off. The changes come at a time of soaring controversy over vaping. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: It would be an understatement to say this has been a difficult year for Juul. In recent months, there have been over 500 reports of lung illnesses apparently tied to vaping. Nine people have died. And Anne Schuchat, a top official of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a congressional committee yesterday that the number of illnesses continues to grow, with users reporting symptoms such as shortness of breath and coughing.


ANNE SCHUCHAT: We believe that probably hundreds more have come in since the numbers we released last week.

ZARROLI: As these cases have piled up, Juul has come under intense scrutiny from state and federal regulators. And the Trump administration has proposed banning the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. California has launched a criminal investigation into the company. Juul came onto the market three years ago with a sleek vaping device designed to look like a USB drive. Its commercials made the controversial claim that vaping was a kind of off-ramp to smoking.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The idea of going back to smoking, I couldn't even imagine doing that. I don't think anyone, including myself, thought that I could switch.

ZARROLI: But critics also said Juul had targeted younger users. It had a heavy social media campaign featuring images of hip, young people flirting and dancing. Robert Jackler of Stanford University says Juul's ads persuaded millions of young people to try vaping.

ROBERT JACKLER: Because Juul is so potently addictive due to its high nicotine, it's very likely that a million or two million youngsters in America have become tightly nicotine addicted through use of Juul.

ZARROLI: Juul was so successful that the tobacco giant Altria shut down its own e-cigarette brands and bought a 35% share of the company. But with reports of lung problems, sales of Juul fell sharply. Today, Juul announced it is suspending all ads in the United States, and CEO Kevin Burns, who came to the company less than two years ago, was fired. He will be replaced by a longtime tobacco executive. Plans to merge Altria with Philip Morris International have been shelved. The two companies will now focus their efforts on launching IQOS, yet another alternative to cigarettes. It's an acronym for I quit ordinary smoking, and it's billed as safer than regular cigarettes. Again, Stanford's Robert Jackler.

JACKLER: The aerosol that it produces compared with e-cigarettes is quite different. And it has more tobacco-like toxins, although considerably less than a regular burning cigarette would have.

ZARROLI: And IQOS has already been approved by the federal government, which means it won't face as many regulatory hurdles as Juul did.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.