As Juul grapples with teen vaping ‘epidemic,’ CEO tells parents ‘I’m sorry’

Kevin Burns, CEO of Juul Labs ⁠— the maker of the bestselling e-cigarette in the U.S. and center of federal regulators’ crackdown into what they’re calling a teen vaping “epidemic” ⁠— has a message for parents whose children are addicted to his company’s products: “I’m sorry.”

Since launching in 2015, Juul has quickly come to dominate the e-cigarette industry with roughly 40% of the market, becoming such a dominant player that Altria, the top U.S. cigarette company, invested $12.8 billion for a 35% stake in the San Francisco-based start-up. But the company has a problem: Its vapes are incredibly popular with teenagers.

The Food and Drug Administration has declared teen vaping an “epidemic,” citing federal survey data that showed nearly 21% of high school students vaped last year. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and health care advocates blame the surge in teen vaping on Juul.

CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla interviewed Burns for a documentary, “Vaporized: America’s E-cigarette Addiction,” which premiers Monday at 10 p.m. ET. Quintanilla, who toured one of Juul’s manufacturing facilities in Wisconsin with Burns, asked him what he would say to a parent with a child who was addicted to Juul.

“First of all, I’d tell them that I’m sorry that their child’s using the product,” said Burns, who joined Juul in late 2017. “It’s not intended for them. I hope there was nothing that we did that made it appealing to them. As a parent of a 16-year-old, I’m sorry for them, and I have empathy for them, in terms of what the challenges they’re going through.”

The company has tried to combat youth use by shutting down its social media accounts and pulling fruity flavors like creme and mango from retailers. So far, that hasn’t stopped criticism. The company’s hometown of San Francisco banned sales of e-cigarettes last month.

E-cigarettes are being marketed to adults to help them quit smoking while still getting their nicotine fix. But they’ve come under fire in recent months for their growing popularity among teens. Federal data shows about 3 million U.S. high school students vaped last year. That is prompting fears e-cigarettes are addicting a new generation of nicotine after decades of cigarette smoking rates plummeting.

Pam Debono’s daughter Grace picked up a Juul in the summer of 2017. At the time she was 15 and Juul was starting to take off. Pam Debono calls it “the summer of Juul,” when she started finding plastic covers everywhere that she “didn’t really have a clue what they were.”

Grace told CNBC that a friend of hers bought the Juul pods and devices from a gas station. Both girls were 15 at the time. Grace said she would hit her Juul first thing in the morning and would puff on it all day, going through one nicotine pod per day — about as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.

“It would always be in my hands,” she said. “Like, it would always just be with me, you know? And so I would always just, like, hit it ’cause it was just so easy.”

Stanford pediatrics professor Bonnie Halpern-Felsher said her research team found kids are “more addicted” to Juul than other products because the nicotine level in Juul pods is “astronomically high.” Juul pods contain 5% nicotine, whereas other pods before Juul’s introduction contained between roughly 1% and 2.4% on average, according to the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to eradicating tobacco. The company has since introduced lower dosages with 3% nicotine for some of its flavors.