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CNN investigates Juul's social media practices
02:28 - Source: CNN
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Federal agencies are going after companies that paid social media “influencers” to promote vaping products, the US Food and Drug Administration announced Friday.

The FDA and the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to four companies for infractions including omitting a required warning about nicotine’s addictiveness.

“Research shows many youth are mistaken or unaware of the risks and the presence of nicotine in e-cigarettes,” acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Ned Sharpless said in a statement Friday. “That’s why it’s critical we ensure manufacturers, retailers and others are including the required health warning about nicotine’s addictive properties on packages and advertisements – especially on social media platforms popular with kids.”

In some cases, companies may not have properly disclosed their relationships with influencers, per FTC guidelines.

The companies include: Solace Technologies LLC, doing business as Solace Vapor; Hype City Vapors LLC; Humble Juice Co. LLC; and Artist Liquids Laboratories LLC, doing business as Artist Liquid Labs. CNN has reached out to these companies for comment.

Lorenzo De Plano, co-founder of Solace Vapor, said in an e-mailed statement that the company will be reviewing and terminating relationships with influencers “who may not be compliant with our marketing policies.” De Plano added that its “internal packaging, marketing and nicotine warnings are compliant with FDA standards” and that the company doesn’t endorse the use of its products by people who weren’t previously tobacco users.

The four companies that received letters have 15 working days to respond to the agencies with “specific actions taken to address each agency’s concerns,” the announcement says. “The warning letters also state that failure to correct violations may result in further action such as seizure or injunction.”

From April 2018 through April 2019, the FDA sent nearly 4,000 warnings and levied 665 fines to retailers for illegally selling products like “e-liquids” in person and online. The agency has also gone after more than 15 companies for selling “e-liquids that resemble kid-friendly foods, such as juice boxes, cereal and candy,” the agency said.

Under the ‘influence’

Social media influencers are compensated for promoting a product to large followings on platforms like Instagram and Facebook. Experts say that brands pay influencers to reach desired audiences in an organic – but targeted – way.

“It’s a tactic that most PR agencies have used for years, contacting people of a certain influence in order to shape the market perception of a brand or product,” Kevin Popovic, director of the Idea Lab at San Diego State University, previously told CNN.

Not only can this be big business, he added, but social media campaigns have some advantages over print or television. For one, they offer companies detailed information on how effective their campaigns are, allowing businesses to better assess their return on investment.

“Many times, we’ll give influencers a unique URL that has tracking abilities on it,” explained Popovic, who is also the founder of Ideahaus, a creative communications agency.

A CNN investigation in December shed light on leading e-cigarette company Juul Labs and its 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.

Juul, which holds about 75% of the US e-cigarette market, was not one of the companies receiving warning letters on Friday from the FDA and FTC. In previous statements, Juul has said it has taken steps to curb underage use, such as halting most retail sales of flavored products and shutting down social media accounts.

However, the company remains under scrutiny from policymakers and health advocates for its role in what has been described as an “epidemic” of underage vaping.

The fight against underage vaping

The FDA revealed in November that vaping had increased nearly 80% among high schoolers and 50% among middle schoolers since the year before. Experts worry that e-cigarettes could put children’s developing brains at risk, get them hooked on nicotine early in life and be a gateway to smoking and other drugs.

The FDA has taken a number of actions against e-cigarette companies, including investigations to uncover whether they are marketing products illegally and outside the agency’s compliance policy.

The agency has also considered the role of drug therapies to get kids to quit vapes and other nicotine products, as there are currently no FDA-approved nicotine cessation products for users under 18.

But critics of the FDA have questioned how aggressively the agency would continue to pursue the issue after its former commissioner – Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who took a strong stance against underage vaping – stepped down.

Friday’s announcement comes not long after Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois criticized the FDA’s Sharpless after a meeting last month for allegedly being unwilling to address vaping among youth.

“It became clear during my meeting with Acting Commissioner Sharpless that he has absolutely no intention of taking legal action he is empowered to take to protect our nation’s children from the addiction of e-cigarettes,” Durbin said in a statement in May. “Dr. Sharpless made it very clear that no action would be taken to ban kid-friendly vaping flavors during this President’s term in office.”

But Sharpless said Friday he would continue to carry Gottlieb’s torch.

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“Under my leadership, the FDA will continue to tackle the troubling epidemic of e-cigarette use among kids,” Sharpless said Friday. “This includes limiting youth access to, and appeal of, flavored tobacco products like e-cigarettes and cigars, taking action against manufacturers and retailers who illegally market these products or sell them to minors, and educating youth about the dangers of e-cigarettes and other tobacco products. We cannot and will not risk a generation of youth to a lifetime of nicotine addiction.”.

CNN’s Roni Selig contributed to this report.