The nation is in the grips of a moral panic about flavored e-cigs that could ultimately benefit Big Tobacco companies. Following a rash of vaping-related illnesses, including eight deaths largely tied to illicit THC cartridges, New York became the first U.S. state to ban flavored e-cigs on September 17. Michigan, Illinois, and Massachusetts are finalizing similar measures and President Trump has also suggested banning e-cig flavors. (Even India recently announced a ban on all vaping, a move embraced by the World Health Organization.)
More big news dropped Wednesday morning. Kevin Burns, the CEO of Juul Labs, is being replaced by K.C. Crosswaithe, an executive from Altria, the Big Tobacco company that owns a 35 percent stake in Juul. Other outlets are reporting that Juul is suspending advertising and that layoffs are imminent.
If flavored Juul pods and illegal weed vapes seem unrelated to you, you’re not alone. Drug policy experts have described this overreaction as more drug war delirium. But as we’re already seeing, big tobacco companies are using this crisis—as they have used other public health crises in the past—as an excuse to consolidate their power over the newly massive vape market.
Big Tobacco stands to gain from this hyper reaction in a few ways. First, nicotine users who may be spooked by heavy-handed media reports could smoke combustible cigarettes instead, according to Jidong Huang, an associate health policy professor at Georgia State University, who specializes in tobacco economics.