Leading e-cigarette company Juul Labs is under the microscope again, with 11 senators demanding answers from the company at the center of the youth vaping "epidemic" whose business practices have been shrouded in "immense secrecy," the senators said in a letter to Juul on Monday.
They are requesting data, plans and other information from Juul related to its popularity among youth and its relationship with tobacco giant Altria, which invested nearly $13 billion in the company late last year.
The Altria deal signaled that Juul is "more interested in padding its profit margins than protecting our nation's children," says the letter, signed by Democrats including Dick Durbin of Illinois, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
"Altria has a long and sordid history of spending billions to entice children to smoke through targeted campaigns that intentionally lied about the science and health effects from cigarettes," the letter says.
The move comes as Dr. Scott Gottlieb -- who took a strong stance against underage vaping as commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration -- stepped down Friday, prompting questions about how aggressively the agency will continue to pursue the issue under new leadership.
"Incoming Acting FDA Commissioner [Dr. Ned] Sharpless must, on day one, work to protect our nation's children from a lifetime of nicotine addiction by putting the full force of FDA behind this effort," Durbin said in a statement.
"An epidemic must be dealt with immediately, not months or years from now," he said.
The senators are pressing Juul for detailed information on its sales and ad spending; how the company plans to keep underage people from seeing its ads or buying its products; new business dealings that emerged after the Altria announcement; how the company plans to verify ages and prevent people from ordering in bulk online; and what financial ties the company has to the "conservative-leaning and anti-regulation organizations" that wrote to President Trump in February, hoping to hamper the FDA's crackdown.
In addition, the lawmakers requested a complete list of "social media influencers" paid by Juul to publicize its brand. A CNN investigation in December shed light on Juul's influencer program and identified several of the social media users who participated. At the time, a representative for Juul said that the company had abandoned that program, describing it as small and short-lived. But now the senators want to know whether the company conducted this business in line with Federal Trade Commission regulations.
CNN has reached out to Juul for comment on the letter, which was addressed to its CEO, Kevin Burns. The senators requested a response by April 25.
Juul has maintained that its products are intended to convert adult former smokers to what it describes as a less-harmful alternative. It says it has taken steps to curb underage use, as well. But in the wake of the Altria deal, the senators say, Juul "has lost what little remaining credibility the company had when it claimed to care about the public health."
The FDA revealed in November that vaping had increased nearly 80% among high schoolers and 50% among middle schoolers since the year before. Public health experts say that Juul has largely propelled the rise, holding about 75% of the e-cigarette market in the United States.
Experts worry that e-cigarettes could put kids' developing brains at risk, get them hooked on nicotine early in life and be a gateway to smoking and other drugs.
The FDA has been conducting its own investigation into e-cigarette companies in an effort to uncover whether they are marketing products illegally and outside the agency's compliance policy. The agency also conducted a surprise inspection of Juul's San Francisco headquarters in October, seizing thousands of documents, many of which relate to its sales and marketing practices.
Most of the same senators also wrote to Juul last year, pressing the company to take swift action to keep its nicotine-filled products out of kids' hands -- but they have been disappointed by the lack of progress made since then, the lawmakers said.
"While you and your investors may be perfectly content with hooking an entire new generation of children on your tobacco products in order to increase your profit margins," the letter says, "we will not rest until your dangerous products are out of the hands of our nation's children."