SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) — The Food and Drug Administration has staged a surprise inspection and seized “over a thousand documents” at the San Francisco headquarters of the nation’s leading e-cigarette manufacturer.

The federal agency said the inspection last Friday targeted Juul Labs which controls more than 70 percent of the nation’s e-cigarette market.

“The JUUL inspection, which we completed on Friday, sought further documentation related to JUUL’s sales and marketing practices, among other things, and resulted in the collection of over a thousand pages of documents,” the agency said in a statement to KPIX 5.

“Across this category, we are committed to taking all necessary actions, such as inspections and advancing new policies, to prevent a new generation of kids from becoming addicted to tobacco products.”

In a statement Juul officials said they were committed to preventing underage use.

“We are committed to preventing underage use, and we want to engage with FDA, lawmakers, public health advocates and others to keep JUUL out of the hands of young people,” the company said. “The meetings last week with FDA gave us the opportunity to provide information about our business from our marketing practices to our industry-leading online age-verification protocols to our youth prevention efforts. It was a constructive and transparent dialogue.”

The company said it had released over 50,000 pages of documents to the FDA since April.

Several weeks ago, the FDA had issued warnings to 40 retail and online stores as part of a month-long operation against illegal sales of Juul to children.
Investigators targeted 7-Eleven locations, Shell gas stations and Cumberland Farms convenience stores as well as vaping shops.

At the time, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the current “blitz” targeting Juul would continue through the end of September.

“This isn’t the only product that we’re looking at, and this isn’t the only action we’re going to be taking to target youth access to tobacco products, and e-cigarettes, in particular,” Gottlieb said in an interview. He named several other brands of concern, including KandyPens and myblu.

FDA regulators had asked Juul Labs to turn over documents about the design, marketing and ingredients of its product. The rare request focused on whether certain product features were specifically appealing to young people.

Like other e-cigarettes, Juul is an electronic device that turns liquid — usually containing nicotine — into an inhalable vapor. Thanks in part to its resemblance to a small computer flash drive, Juul has become popular with some teenagers as a discreet way to vape at school and in public. Parents, teachers and principals say they are struggling to control the booming trend.

Health advocates have worried about the popularity of vaping products among kids and the potential impact on adult smoking rates in the future. A recent government-commissioned report found “substantial evidence” that young people who use e-cigarettes are more likely to try cigarettes.

Juul sales have exploded over the past two years, accounting for 55 percent of the U.S. market for e-cigarettes, according to recent industry figures. That’s up from just 5 percent of the market in 2016.

Juul Labs says it monitors retailers to ensure they are following the law. Its age verification system searches public records and sometimes requires customers to upload a photo ID.

E-cigarettes have grown into a $4 billion industry in the U.S. despite little research on their long-term effects, including whether they are helpful in helping smokers quit cigarettes.

That’s the sales pitch made by Juul and many other e-cigarette manufacturers: “Juul delivers nicotine satisfaction akin to a cigarette in a format that’s as simple and easy to use,” states the company’s website. A Juul “starter kit” can be ordered online for $49.99. The company’s website is intended to only sell to customers ages 21 and up.

Research shows that many e-cigarettes contain trace amounts of chemicals like formaldehyde, but it’s unclear whether they exist at levels that can cause long-term health problems. Most researchers agree any risks of e-cigarettes do not approach the long-established harms of traditional cigarettes, which cause cancer, heart disease and lung disease.

The FDA gained authority to regulate e-cigarettes in 2016, but anti-smoking advocates have criticized the agency for not policing the space more aggressively to stop companies from appealing to underage users, particularly with flavors like mango, cool cucumber and creme brulee.

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