NEW YORK — Juul Labs, the nation’s largest seller of e-cigarettes, said Thursday it would stop selling mint-flavored pods, which have become especially popular among teenagers.
The move precedes an anticipated federal flavor ban that is to be announced soon, one that the Food and Drug Administration initially had said would include mint as well as menthol. In recent weeks, intense lobbying by the vaping and tobacco industries against a menthol ban has heightened speculation that this flavor would be exempt from any prohibitions against flavors.
Juul said Thursday it would continue to sell menthol pods and its two tobacco-flavored products.
The company’s decision followed the release this week of two major surveys showing another year-over-year spike in teenage vaping of e-cigarettes and the rising popularity of mint-flavored nicotine pods as other youth-friendly flavors such as unicorn milk were pulled from retail shelves.
Public health experts have urged the federal government and lawmakers to impose strict limits on the variety of e-cigarettes, which remain on the market in most states despite little evidence that they are safe.
Besides the surveys showing about 27 percent of high school students reporting that they had vaped e-cigarettes recently, hospitals and doctors have been startled in recent months by an alarming outbreak of lung injuries largely related to vaping products containing THC, the high-inducing ingredient in marijuana. Some patients, however, have reported vaping both THC and nicotine products, leaving researchers to suggest there may be more than one culprit behind the respiratory illnesses.
Juul, which is the target of several investigations, including a criminal inquiry in Northern California and two into its marketing practices by the Federal Trade Commission and the FDA, has been blamed for much of the increase in teenage vaping and the risk its products carry for nicotine addiction.
In response to the backlash from parents, schools, and lawmakers, the troubled company had already stopped selling an array of fruit- and dessert-flavored pods, including mango and crème brûlée, to retailers, and just recently stopped selling them online as well.
The company said mint-flavored pods made up about 70 percent of its latest sales.
A study released Tuesday by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that teenagers surveyed in 2019 preferred mint and mango Juul flavors. One-third of the roughly 43,000 students in eighth, 10th, and 12th grade who took the survey were selected at random and asked about their preferences. Of those students, 18 percent reported recent e-cigarette use, with nearly 13 percent using Juul.
Eighth graders were most likely to use mango, mint, and fruit. Tenth and 12th graders preferred mint, followed by mango.
Menthol was the least popular flavor, the study showed, although public health advocates warned that with other options gone, teenagers would most likely move to menthol.
The final results of the National Youth Tobacco Survey, conducted by the FDA with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were also published this week and documented a continued rise in the number of teenagers vaping nicotine.
“These results are unacceptable and that is why we must reset the vapor category in the US and earn the trust of society by working cooperatively with regulators, attorneys general, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use,” said K.C. Crosthwaite, who became chief executive of Juul in September, after leaving Altria. The tobacco giant now owns a 35 percent stake in Juul.
The survey showed that more than 5 million minors reported recent use of e-cigarettes this year, compared with 3.6 million in 2018. About one-quarter of high school students reported vaping within 30 days of the survey, up from 20 percent last year.
The study was published Tuesday in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association. It noted that nicotine exposure during adolescence can harm the developing brain, which continues to form until about age 25. The study found that more than 10 percent of middle school students reported current use of e-cigarettes.
For the first time, at the insistence of the FDA, the survey asked students what brand of e-cigarettes they generally used. Juul was the overwhelming favorite: 59 percent of high school e-cigarette users said they usually used Juul, as did 54 percent of middle school users.
The timing of the FDA’s announcement on a proposed flavor ban remained unclear. Intensive lobbying by the tobacco and vaping industries, as well as retailers, may have influenced the Trump administration to exempt menthol from any flavor ban, especially since traditional menthol cigarettes are still available for sale.
On Wednesday, Kellyanne Conway, a senior administration aide, indicated that an announcement would be made soon but also said the White House was concerned about the effect such a ban would have on businesses.
She also noted the latest survey data and the vaping trends among teenagers.
The study in JAMA, she said, made it clear that “kids report they use mint and other flavors like mango, bubble gum, tutti frutti, unicorn milk — pretty remarkable — and that they don’t care for menthol, which of course many smokers — I’m not one — say tastes like tobacco.”