TORONTO – E-cigarette maker Juul is opening its first retail store in Canada amid mounting concern about the brand’s role in the rise of teen vaping.
The Juul store in Toronto’s west-end, which opened to customers Monday, marks the California-based company’s first brick-and-mortar location in North America.
Upon entering, Juul says all visitors will be asked to provide identification to prove they meet Ontario’s legal age of 19 to purchase vaping products before they can pass through the clouded glass doors concealing the offerings from public view.
Those who gain entry will find Juul’s devices and cartridges laid out on tables in the sleek showroom style of an Apple store. Patrons can interact with the devices, but not test them, because vaping is prohibited indoors.
At a media preview on Monday morning, Michael Nederhoff, general manager of Juul Labs in Canada, said the store was designed to be an “educational venue” for adult smokers looking to learn about vaping.
But as Juul has emerged as Canada’s leading vaping brand, critics say the company is at risk of creating a new generation of nicotine addicts in light of recent research suggesting that the prevalence of teenage vaping has nearly doubled.
In May 2018, Ottawa formally legalized vaping, opening the door for international vaping brands such as Juul to enter the Canadian market.
Since then, Juul has captured a 78 per cent share of Canada’s vape market, with its products available at more than 13,000 vape shops and convenience stores across the country, said Nederhoff.
Nick Kadysh, Juul’s director of government relations, said the company sees youth vaping as “completely unacceptable” and has taken steps to prevent its products from getting into the wrong hands.
He cited efforts such as using third-party age verification for online sales, and sending secret shoppers to check roughly 150 stores per month to make sure they’re carding customers and following Juul’s restrictions on bulk purchases. He said retailers who don’t comply may either be “blacklisted” or reported to Health Canada.
But David Hammond, a public health professor at the University of Waterloo, said Juul and other e-cigarette makers need to go further to stem the 74-per-cent surge in vaping by Canadian teens that his research suggests.
Hammond led a study published in the British Medical Journal in June based on online surveys of Canadians aged 16 to 19 in 2017 and 2018.
The researchers found that the number of Canadian teens who said they had vaped in the last month increased to 14.6 per cent in 2018 from 8.4 per cent in 2017.
Hammond said the 2018 surveys straddled the month before and after Juul hit stores in Canada, and within weeks of becoming available, the brand had surged to become the third most popular among Canadian teens.
He said the brand’s soaring sales in Canada are particularly alarming in light of trends in the U.S., where researchers found the increase in Juul use accounted for more than two-thirds of the overall rise in youth vaping.
Last week, Juul executives were called before U.S. Congress to field questions from lawmakers about whether the company tried to market its products to youth.
House members pointed to internal documents indicating that Juul planned to push its products on social media and offered funding to schools for anti-vaping education in a program that was quashed after the company learned that big tobacco had backed similar anti-smoking efforts decades earlier.
Juul executives in Canada said neither of those strategies were attempted in Canada, and the company has even advocated for Ottawa to ban social media marketing of vaping products.
Earlier this year, Health Canada proposed new measures to ban the promotion of e-cigarettes in public places, stores and media where young people are likely to encounter them, including point-of-sale advertisements.
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Kadysh said the restriction would hinder Juul’s ability to reach adult smokers when they’re buying cigarettes at their local convenience store and encourage them to switch to what is believed to be a less harmful alternative.
For Hammond, this reluctance speaks volumes about Juul’s commitment to preventing youth vaping.
“I think it is (disingenuous) at best for any company to suggest that those types of ads don’t reach kids when it is literally inches from the candy,” he said.
Hammond credits Juul’s popularity among youth in part to the technology the brand uses to deliver a high concentration of nicotine without irritating the mouth or throat.
Many competing e-cigarette brands have also adopted this technology, which he believes puts young people at greater risk of becoming addicted to nicotine.
He said this may have contributed to the dramatic rise researchers found in rates of daily or weekly e-cigarette use by Canadian adolescents.
Another factor in Juul’s youth appeal may be the minimalist design of the devices, which resemble a flash drive and allow for discrete use without the telltale smell of conventional cigarettes, Hammond added.
Last month, San Francisco banned the sale of e-cigarettes in a bid to curb underage use. But Hammond said he doesn’t think a similar prohibition would be feasible or desirable in Canada.
“We can actually control these products more by having them regulated than just trying to push them under the blanket,” he said.
“I think it would be a shame if we had to ban them outright because of their potential to help with adult smokers, but we need to find some way of reducing access to kids for sure.”
–With files from The Associated Press