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Dems target Juul over Altria ties, advertising tactics

Senate Democrats are pressing e-cigarette manufacturer Juul for information about its advertising practices and recent partnership with Altria, amid what government officials have called an “epidemic” of youth vaping.

Eleven Democrats, led by Sens. Dick DurbinDick DurbinFunding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms MORE (Ill.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayCriminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot National reading, math tests postponed to 2022 amid coronavirus surge Democratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition MORE (Wash.), sent a letter Monday accusing the company of being more interested in “padding its profit margin than protecting our nation’s children.”

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The senators requested detailed information about Juul’s partnership with Altria, which makes Marlboro cigarettes, and how that will impact the company’s stated goal of reducing youth vaping.

"Altria has a long and sordid history of spending billions to entice children to smoke through targeted campaigns that intentionally lied about the science and health effects from cigarettes," the senators wrote.

Altria invested $13 billion in Juul late last year for a 35 percent stake in the company. The senators said the deal erases “what little remaining credibility the company had when it claimed to care about public health.”

Juul sold 16.2 million devices in 2017. It now commands three quarters of the e-cigarette market, the senators said, citing data from Wells Fargo.

“While you and your investors may be perfectly content with hooking an entire new generation of children on your tobacco products in order to increase your profit margins," the lawmakers wrote, “we will not rest until your dangerous products are out of the hands of our nation's children.”

In a statement, Juul spokesman Ted Kwong said the company "welcome[s] the opportunity to share information regarding JUUL Labs' commitment to curbing underage use of our products while fulfilling our mission to eliminate combustible cigarettes, the number one cause of preventable death in our country."

Kwong said the investment by Altria will help further that goal.

“The Altria investment will help us switch adult smokers off of combustible cigarettes by helping us get our product in their hands. Through the Altria investment, we are directly connecting with adult smokers through a variety of initiatives, including inserting information about JUUL products in cigarette packs," Kwong said.

The letter comes after Scott Gottlieb stepped down Friday from his post as head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), raising questions about whether the agency will further pursue its aggressive crackdown on vaping and tobacco companies.

Gottlieb threatened to remove vaping products from the market entirely, limit the nicotine in cigarettes and ban menthol in cigarettes. He also voiced support for raising the minimum age for buying all tobacco products from 18 to 21.

The FDA's initiatives under Gottlieb sparked pushback from conservatives, who argued the changes would make it harder for adults who are trying to quit smoking to obtain e-cigarettes as an alternative.

The senators also pressed Juul for information on its sales and ad spending, what information the company provides to insurers and providers about whether Juul is effective at helping people quit smoking and any financial ties the company has to a collection of “conservative-leaning and anti-regulation organizations” that urged President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal watchdog accuses VOA parent company of wrongdoing under Trump appointee Lawsuit alleges 200K Georgia voters were wrongly purged from registration list Ivanka Trump gives deposition in lawsuit alleging misuse of inauguration funds MORE to intervene and stop the FDA’s crackdown.

Over the past year, both the FDA and U.S. surgeon general have called the rise of youth vaping a public health epidemic.

The use of e-cigarettes among high school students jumped 78 percent from 2017 to 2018, and 48 percent among high school students during the same period, according to the FDA.

Durbin, alongside Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMcConnell in tough position as House eyes earmark return Pressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal Bipartisan, bicameral group unveils 8 billion coronavirus proposal MORE (R-Alaska), is a co-sponsor of legislation that would restrict e-cigarette flavors and ban flavored cigars.