Vaping giant Juul aims to smoke out users in Ireland
US VAPING giant Juul Labs - in which Marlboro owner Altria paid $12.8bn (€11.4bn) for a 35pc stake last year - aims to capture a slice of the Irish market with a launch across 160 Circle-K forecourts and 50 Hale Vaping stores.
The controversial company was accused by the former head of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month, during his final week in office, of being "largely" responsible for what he said was a nicotine "addiction crisis" among US teens.
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It's facing a class action lawsuit in the United States, launched last month by a Florida teenager through her parents.
They claim their daughter is addicted to Juul and suffers from seizures, "a known complication of nicotine ingestion".
Juul - with estimated revenue of $1.5bn (€1.3bn) last year - reckons the vaping market in Ireland is worth around €69m a year.
But with 830,000 tobacco users, the group thinks it has a significant opportunity to sell its wares to smokers trying to give up what the industry calls "combustible" tobacco products - mainly cigarettes.
In the US, Juul controls 75pc of the e-cigarette market, from a standing start in 2015.
Juul EMEA president Grant Winterton insisted that the company will not be targeting teens with its products. Fruity flavours the company sold for its vaping product in the US were criticised for sparking teen use of the products.
Under pressure from the FDA, Juul pulled its Facebook and Instagram accounts. In the US, the term 'Juuling' has entered the teen vernacular as a term for vaping.
"We never marketed to teens," Mr Winterton told the Irish Independent as the company launched in Dublin yesterday. "There is no evidence we ever did."
He insisted that the FDA has "never made that accusation".
He added that the company does not use so-called "media influencers" who promote products on their own social media accounts in return for payment.
"Is it true that we've taken some learnings from the United States about how to move forward best in terms of targeting adult smokers? It is true," he said.
In the US, aside from yanking its social media accounts (it maintains a corporate Twitter account), Juul removed flavours such as mango that are most likely to appeal to teens from in-store sale last year.
But the company still faces significant hurdles in persuading public representatives that it has done enough to stem the use of products among teens.
In Ireland, Juul said that its retail partners have been tasked with making sure anyone who looks under the age of 25 has evidence they are over 18.
It added that retailers will be "regularly monitored" through an auditing scheme to ensure they are sticking to the rules.
The packs also carry warnings that nicotine is highly addictive.
The company has also partnered with Circle-K, owned by Canadian group Alimentation Couche-Tard, in other markets, according to Gareth Smyth, the manager of Juul Labs in Ireland.
Mr Winterton said that expanding outside the United States is not a reaction to negative public opinion there.
"We've launched in nine markets. We'll launch more markets in the next 12 months across Europe and across Asia," he said.
"If we're going to enact the vision of the company to offer an alternative to one billion smokers, then we're at the very start of the runway in terms of what we need to do in terms of expansion."