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Altria writes down $4.5 billion from its investment in Juul

Facing increasing scrutiny from international and domestic regulators, the Altria Group has decided to write down its investment into the e-cigarette company JUUL by $4.5 billion.

That’s roughly one-third of the $12.8 billion that the tobacco giant had invested into JUUL a little less than one year ago.

What a difference a year has made.

JUUL, which has become synonymous with the vaping phenomenon that has swept the U.S., was once hailed as being at the forefront of a wave of companies that were making smoking obsolete and nicotine consumption safer for consumers.

The company began running into problems as its popularity increased exponentially (in part by allegedly turning to some of the same tactics big tobacco used to target underage consumers).

As the complaints began to roll in, and as JUUL was held responsible for an explosion in the use of tobacco products among underage Americans, the regulatory scrutiny also began to increase.

First the company was compelled to limit its sale of flavored tobacco products. Now it may be forced to pull all of its flavored products outright.

None of the company’s troubles have been helped by the wave of vaping related illnesses that have swept through the U.S. causing several deaths in users across multiple states.

Indeed, a new lawsuit against the company (filed two days ago) alleges that JUUL knowingly sold contaminated pods despite warnings from at least one employee.

First reported by BuzzFeed, the lawsuit was brought by Siddharth Breja, a former senior vice president of global finance at Juul from May 2018 to March 2019.

Breja alleges he was fired for complaining about the charge — a claim that a spokesperson for JUUL called “baseless”.

“[Breja] was terminated in March 2019 because he failed to demonstrate the leadership qualities needed in his role,”a spokesperson for JUUL wrote in an email. “The allegations concerning safety issues with Juul products are equally meritless, and we already investigated the underlying manufacturing issue and determined the product met all applicable specifications.”

The write down by Altria follows an announcement from JUUL that it intends to lay off around 500 people — or roughly 10% of its workforce.

As Juul announces mass layoffs, a new lawsuit alleges it shipped a million contaminated pods

A lawsuit filed a by former Juul executive alleges that the company knew a batch of contaminated e-liquid had been used in about one million pods shipped to retailers earlier this year, but did not inform customers. The lawsuit, first reported by BuzzFeed, was brought by Siddharth Breja, former senior vice president of global finance at Juul from May 2018 to March 2019, who alleges he was fired after complaining about the contaminated pods.

News of the lawsuit comes the same day as Juul’s announcement it will lay off about 500 people, or 10% to 15% of its workforce, and the departure of four executives, including chief financial officer Tim Danaher. Juul is currently under scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration, which claims the startup made misleading statements about its product and targeting of teens.

In the lawsuit, Breja claims that during a meeting on March 12, he learned a contaminated batch of mint e-liquid was used to make 250,000 refill kits, or a total of one million pods, that had already been shipped to retailers.

Breja alleges that when he complained about Juul’s refusal to issue a product recall or health and safety notice, Danaher said doing so would cost the company billions of dollars in lost sales, hurting its then-$38 billion valuation. About a week later, Breja says the company fired him, telling him that it was because he had misrepresented himself as former chief financial officer at Uber. In the lawsuit, Breja says the claim was “preposterous,” and that he had accurately represented his former position as a chief financial officer of a division at Uber.

In the lawsuit, Breja also claims that Juul wanted to sell pods that were almost a year old and when he asked the company to include an expiration or best by date, or a date of manufacture on the packaging, he was told by former CEO Kevin Burns that “half our customers are drunk and vaping like mo-fos, who the fuck is going to notice the quality of our pods?”

TechCrunch has contacted Juul and the law firm representing Breja for comment. In a statement to BuzzFeed, Breja’s attorney Harmeet Dhillon said “Mr. Breja became aware of very concerning actions at the company, and he performed his duty to shareholders and to the board by reporting these issues internally. In exchange for doing that, he was inappropriatey terminated. This is very concerning, particularly since some of the issues he raised concerned matters of public safety.”

Burns was replaced in September by K.C. Crosthwaite, a former executive at Juul’s largest shareholder Altria . A replacement for Danaher has not been announced yet.

FDA boss threatens ‘game over’ for e-cigs if companies won’t keep kids away

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The head of the Food and Drug Administration has threatened to pull e-cigarettes out of U.S. markets entirely unless e-cig makers take greater measures to curb the youth’s use of their products. 

Speaking at a public hearing Friday, Scott Gottlieb, the FDA Commissioner, said he was “horrified” at the surge in rates of teen vaping, NBC reported. More than 3 million U.S. teens use e-cigarettes, an increase of 78 percent since 2011, according to recent CDC data.

“I still believe e-cigarettes present an opportunity for adult smokers to transition off cigarettes and onto nicotine delivery products that may not have the same level of risks,” Gottlieb wrote in a tweet ahead of the hearing. “However, if the youth use continues to rise, the entire category will face an existential threat.” Read more…

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