It all started with a Facebook post. TD Bowen, owner of Moon Mountain and former President of the Florida Smoke Free Association received a threatening letter from JUUL regarding one of his vape shops.
The letter, dated March 10, 2019, stated that a JUUL secret shopper “recently visited your location and the store associate did not request a valid government issued ID to verify that the individual attempting to purchase JUUL products was of legal age.” The letter went to warn that “failure to conduct proper age verification” would result in the following penalties: first, a warning letter from JUUL, and second, JUUL would report the shop to the FDA via “Form 3389”. The letter looked official.
Here’s the rub: Bowen’s store doesn’t carry any JUUL products. Moon Mountain’s shops discontinued JUUL products months prior to JUUL’s decision to pull its flavored pods from vaping stores. So there was no failure to verify age of an “individual attempting to purchase JUUL products”. Second, the store manager, an Air Force veteran, stated unequivocally that the JUUL secret shopper did not attempt to make any purchase, but merely stepped inside the door and asked the question, “Do you carry JUUL pods?” to which the answer was “no.” There is no age verification requirement for asking questions.
Bowen was livid, stating, “Mind you we have multiple locations and have been in business for 6 years. We have never had a tobacco violation for underage sales.” The Moon Mountain shops also serve beer, so they follow more stringent age verification laws, Bowen said, “We’re a 21 and up establishment. We have to follow alcohol rules.”
He posted the letter online, and soon, dozens of other vape store managers and owners posted and messaged Bowen to let him know that they too had received the same threatening JUUL secret shopper letter. Interestingly enough, many vape shops reported their letters were dated the same day as Bowen’s, March 10.
Bowen is a strong proponent of preventing youth vaping. He worked to pass age verification and the “over 18” law in the state of Florida as President of Smoke Free Florida Association back in 2014, when vaping was just beginning to gain popularity. Why? “Because it’s the right thing to do, and we want to keep electronic cigarettes out of children’s hands. We support child proof caps, we support 18 and up.”
Nick Boles, another vapor shop owner also posted a JUUL secret shopper letter dated March 10, that stated “Our Bulk Sales Restrictions Secret Shop Program recently visited your location and the store associate allowed the purchase of JUUL products in quantities over the limits stated above.” Boles, who stated he had not carried JUUL products for more than 9 months, reached out to JUUL Customer Success Manager Matthew Garrity, and posted the following response:
Thank you for reaching out! That letter is a general letter that went out to all JUUL retailers. It is just a reminder of a bulk sales policy and a warning to retailers on what happens when those policies are violated. We have had a problem throughout the country with retailers selling more than two devices and five pods per transaction and JUUL will be monitoring it closely.
Please let me know if you have any other questions!
Boles stated in his Facebook post, “Haven’t carried JUUL for about 9 months. I don’t appreciate being accused of violating a policy for a product I don’t even carry.”
This begs the question: It makes sense that JUUL would send out secret shoppers and even letters to remind their retailers to follow age verification and bulk sales policies and laws — but why would JUUL falsely claim in these letters that shops had violated age verification and bulk sales rules?
Is JUUL trying to create a paper trail? And if so, where does it lead?
Soupwire reached out to both the JUUL press office and JUUL Customer Success Manager, Mr. Garrity, for comment on this story and received no response.
It’s no secret that JUUL has faced some heavy pressure from the FDA as of late for its outsized role in the “epidemic” of youth vaping, and its practice of marketing to underaged vapers. Is it possible JUUL has just taken it upon itself to not only clean up its own act, but the entire industry’s as well?
Vape shop owners don’t think so.
Sherwin Mena, owner of the Trinity Vapor Lounge, and President of the North Carolina Vaping Council, also posted a letter he received from JUUL, dated March 10, 2019. Mena stated that JUUL “is compiling statistical information to prove vape shops are just as ‘culpable’ as [convenience stores], with age verification. People need to see past the anger with [JUUL] and realize the bigger play here.”
Bowen is skeptical of JUUL’s intentions as well, stating: “This enforcement is none of JUULs business, they are not an enforcement agency, they are not a friend of our industry and they are trying to build a false case against vape shops. I’m furious over this, as [Moon Mountain] are huge vaping advocates. They’re trying to clean up their act, but you don’t do that by trying to demonize your competition. It’s insane to me that they had the audacity to do something like that.”
Bowen added, “If they were trying to clean up the industry, they’d support the initiatives to change the regulation. They’d go after child marketing and all of that kind of stuff.”
Many vaping industry insiders believe the industry is too big and expansive for the FDA to regulate – that it would be easier to manage a handful of “Big Vapor” companies, rather than thousands of small businesses across the U.S.
Bowen said the FDA’s position seems to be, “We’re going to lump vapor in with tobacco – a small business that was built by a number of American small businesses — wipe out those businesses, and then turn it back over to the companies that have been killing people for over a hundred years.”
Altria, the parent company of cigarette maker Phillip Morris, bought a 35% stake of JUUL in December.
Bowen says JUUL is going after small vape shops in other ways as well, “I keep seeing little pieces where JUUL is lobbying for taxes on e-liquids – [because their pods contain only a small amount of e-liquid] as compared to a typical vape juice refill which contains 60 ml…Puts vape shops out of business. Makes their packaging more appealing.”
Bowen stated in his March 19 Facebook post, “This is not ethical behavior by JUUL, it’s another posturing position for them with the FDA to try and shut down all other vapor.”
Bowen summed it up, “JUUL wants to be the last man standing at the end of the day.”