Juul CEO tells non-smokers not to vape or use his company's product

Juul CEO to non-smokers: "Don't use Juul."

Last Updated Aug 29, 2019 2:43 PM EDT

The CEO of Juul Labs is defending his company's reputation amid growing concerns and mounting lawsuits tied to vaping. But he has a direct message for non-smokers thinking of using Juul.

"Don't vape. Don't use Juul," Juul CEO Kevin Burns said in an exclusive interview with Tony Dokoupil for "CBS This Morning." "Don't start using nicotine if you don't have a preexisting relationship with nicotine. Don't use the product. You're not our target consumer."

Juul markets itself as an alternative to traditional cigarettes. But when Dokoupil asked if it was fair to say that Juul is safer than cigarettes, Burns wouldn't say.

"I'm not gonna comment about where I am in terms of that," Burns said.

"Cigarettes are here. The patch is here. Juul is in the middle?" Dokoupil asked.

"Let's just say cigarettes are known to be the number-one source of preventable death in the world and are at the far end extreme of that-- the continuum of risk," Burns said.

Burns conceded that the long-term effects of vaping are not known.

"We think we have a product that is legal today, is tested for toxicity, and does not present, you know, a risk based on the guidelines of the category today to the American public," Burns said.

Juul points out the U.S. Food and Drug Administration limits what it can say about potential public health benefits. At one point following an exchange about product safety, the Juul team had to break from the interview to determine what they could and couldn't say. In May of next year, Juul will need to file with the Food and Drug Administration and prove to the agency that they are a net good for public health.

When asked if Juul is toxic, Burns asked if Dokoupil was asking about the product or the company. Dokoupil clarified he meant the product.

"We toxicology test all of our products," Burns said.

And the CEO said if Juul knew their product was a toxic or dangerous substance, they wouldn't be selling it.

"I can't imagine we had the data to support that we're selling a product that is damaging to the American public and we had that data that we'd continue to sell that product," Burns said.

The public, however, may be skeptical of those claims due to past dishonesty from the tobacco industry, something Burns acknowledged. And he recognized that taking billions of dollars from Altria, the sellers of Marlboro who acquired a stake in Juul in late 2018, hurt his company's credibility on that front. He said the positives of that move outweighed the negatives.

"Most of my rationale for this is that they're gonna help accelerate our mission," Burns said. "I've got access to retail space that I wouldn't have otherwise. I have access to research that I wouldn't have otherwise. I have access to their 17 million smoker database that I wouldn't have otherwise that I can target smokers very specifically and know that I'm talking to people that are adult smokers. I have access to all their scientific information related to [Premarket Tobacco Product Applications] that they can be helpful on. So there's a lot of pluses in terms of fulfilling our mission that go well beyond any financial contribution."

Juul markets itself as an alternative to traditional cigarettes. The e-cigarette giant said its mission is to "improve the lives of the world's one billion adult smokers by eliminating cigarettes," and the goal appears to be paying off.

In recent weeks, cigarette sales volume declined more than 7%. That is more than twice its historic rate of decline, and, according to a report released this month by Wells Fargo, e-cigarette sales, led by Juul, are a major reason for the decrease. Burns said he wants to see the percentage of decline in cigarette sales volume jump to double digits.

"As our share of the cigarette industry has grown in the U.S., we have seen a high correlation of decline in the smoking rates in the United States," Burns said. "We're at three times the historical average in terms of the decline rate of cigarettes being smoked in the United States."