E-cigarette maker Juul Labs Inc., facing budget cuts and regulatory scrutiny, has shelved the development of a puff-counting feature that some company employees say had the potential to help users wean themselves off nicotine.
Juul last year began piloting a usage monitor in the U.K. and Canada. The feature allowed consumers to track the number of puffs they took on a Juul vaporizer that transmitted the data through a Bluetooth connection to an Android-phone app. It also gave users the option to create a daily alert when they reached a certain number of puffs.
The pilot ended in April, and there are no current plans to bring the usage monitor back, according to a Juul official and other people familiar with the matter.
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A company spokesman said Juul’s top product-development priority is technology aimed at restricting underage access. Juul has submitted to the Food and Drug Administration a new version of its vaporizer designed to unlock only for users at least 21 years old, according to people familiar with the matter.
The usage-monitor project was put on hold because of budget constraints and because executives didn’t think regulators, already wary of the e-cigarette maker, would approve a device that gave the company access to users’ nicotine-consumption data, the Juul official said. The company is still exploring the feature, the official said.
Government officials have blamed Juul for causing a surge in teen vaping in the U.S. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Juul is planning to cut more than half its 2,200-person staff and is considering shuttering its operations across Europe and Asia. The cuts come amid regulatory crackdowns on flavored e-cigarettes and a sharp decline in Juul’s sales.
“For adult smokers, we have a product road map years into the future, including potential features like the usage monitor,” the spokesman said. Juul will take a methodical approach and will work with regulators “so we earn trust around the intent and execution of any such products,” he added.
Some current and former employees said the puff-tracking feature could have provided support to users who wanted to quit by helping them gradually taper down their consumption.
Juul is reviewing the data it collected during the pilot in the U.K. and Canada to determine whether there is any evidence that an e-cigarette usage monitor could encourage cigarette smokers to try vaping, the Juul official said. “A cigarette has a beginning and an end,” the official said. Sometimes traditional smokers aren’t sure how e-cigarette usage works or how many puffs to take, the official said. About 1,500 people used the feature during the pilot.
To introduce a usage monitor in the U.S., Juul’s primary market, the FDA first would have to conclude that it presented a public-health benefit such as helping cigarette smokers switch to a less-harmful alternative. Regulators would likely raise questions about user privacy, and the effort would be further complicated by Apple Inc.’s ban on vaping-related apps in its App Store, the Juul official said.
Marketing a puff-tracker as a tool to help people quit altogether would require FDA clearance as a smoking-cessation device—a more challenging regulatory hurdle. The agency last year raised concerns about Juul’s “Make the Switch” marketing campaign, saying the ads implied that Juul was a smoking-cessation device. The company wasn’t authorized to make such a claim.
Since Juul Chief Executive K.C. Crosthwaite took the helm of the e-cigarette maker a year ago, the startup has halted most of its U.S. advertising, cut more than 1,500 jobs not including the pending round of layoffs, stopped selling sweet and fruity flavors in the U.S., and reversed its international expansion.
The company’s future now hinges on applications that Juul submitted to the FDA in July, seeking permission for its products to remain on the U.S. market.
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