Altria Group’s nearly $13 billion investment into Juul Labs does not merely the boost the unicorn’s already lofty valuation but also gives Juul’s much needed experience with federal regulators who have been scrutinizing Juul’s failure to prevent teenagers from using its “alternative” smoking products.
In turn, Juul offers Altria, the parent company of Phillip Morris, something the it has failed to achieve despite spending billions of dollars in marketing and lobbying: the prospect of convincing a skeptical public that Altria truly wants to abandon its “Big Tobacco” legacy.
Juul now enjoys a private valuation of $38 billion due to its popular vapor products that heat tobacco instead of burning it, the latter which releases more hazardous chemicals. Juul says its mission is to provide a way for smokers to stop using traditional combustible cigarettes.
But Juul CEO Kevin Burns acknowledged that its alliance with Altria might prompt critics to say that it sold out to Big Tobacco and thus betrayed its mission.
“We understand the controversy and skepticism that comes with an affiliation and partnership with the largest tobacco company in the US,” Burns said in a statement. “We were skeptical as well. But over the course of the last several months we were convinced by actions, not words, that in fact this partnership could help accelerate our success switching adult smokers.”
For one thing, Altria has been trying to do what Juul has already accomplished: popularize “healthier” tobacco products that will help smokers transition away from traditional cigarettes.
In 2008, Altria spun off Phillip Morris International which owns the Marlboro brand, so the unit could focus on emerging markets. But the two companies also jointly created an electronic smoking device called IQOS that heats, not burns, tobacco. Something similar to Juul.
The company sells IQOS in places like Great Britain, Japan and South Korea. But PMI has been lobbying the Food and Drug Administration to approve the product, which Altria will market and distribute in the United States.
So PMI dispatched some its top executives to visit government officials and journalists, including myself at the time, to discuss the technology.
“The principle behind this technology is to develop a product that can allow the smokers to have the experience of smoking, the bits that they enjoyed when they smoke, but hopefully separate that out from their exposure to the harmful chemical substances that are in smoke,” Ruth Dempsey, PMI’s former chief scientist and current director of external relations, told me.
“In a classical cigarette, the nicotine and the taste and the aromatics actually come off at much lower temperatures because those are native parts of the tobacco and they can be released through heating of tobacco rather than the actual from burning,” she said.
As smoking rates plummet in the United States, tobacco companies like PMI have been searching for new revenue streams, including products like IQOS that can help wean smokers off cigarettes. To gain credibility with consumers, PMI has asked the FDA permission to describe these products as “reduced risk.” The company has invested considerable resources in scientific studies and clinical trials to prove IQOS are safer to smoke than regular cigarettes, Dempsey said.
“Before we put the product on the market, we want to make sure that smokers understand this is not a risk-free product,” she said. “Nicotine after all is not risk-free. But it may be a better alternative to smokers who would otherwise continue to smoke. That’s one element we want to see, is whether or not they understand and find that product attractive.”
But that might be a tough sell, given Big Tobacco’s history of misleading the public on addiction and the dangers of smoking. But the company hopes transparency and rigorous science will win consumers over.
“People are going to be skeptical, and they’re right to be skeptical,” PMI spokesman Corey Henry said. “But our position is you don’t have to trust us, and you shouldn’t automatically trust us. Take a look at the information yourself and do so with an open mind and see if you arrive at the same conclusions that we do. We’ve got 200 peer-reviewed studies of our science. All of the science we’ve submitted to FDA will become available through our application.”
The fact that PMI chose to pursue FDA approval for its claims is significant in itself, given the historically contentious relationship between the industry and the country’s top regulator for consumer products.
“For us going through the FDA process, hopefully they’ll arrive at the same conclusions that we have,” Henry said. “But it does sound a little counterintuitive that a tobacco company is welcoming the opportunity for a government health agency to review its data. But for us that’s incredibly important to have that opportunity for them to do so.”
Juul has portrayed itself as the anthesis to Big Tobacco, the company that has really taken smokers’ interests to heart. However, the company popularized its heat-not-burn vaping technology not with FDA-sanctioned health claims but with appealing industrial design and marketing buzz.
But Juul recently faced enormous scrutiny, especially from the FDA, because its products, especially the flavored ones, proved especially popular with underage teenagers.
“Our intent was never to have youth use JUUL products,” Burns said. “But intent is not enough, the numbers are what matter, and the numbers tell us underage use of e-cigarette products is a problem.”
“We are not perfect,” he said. “We are constantly learning and getting better at what we do.”
Burns is essentially saying that Juul needs help in these matters. So who has experience with retail distribution, communicating with the FDA, and designing campaigns and programs to stop underage teen smoking?
Big Tobacco. Hence the investment from Altria.
Prior to the alliance, some Wall Street analysts actually predicted Juul’s problems’ with the FDA would actually help Altria/PMI get their IQOS technology approved in the United States.
IQOS devices are methanol, not flavored based like Juul’s products, and therefore less attractive to teenagers, said Wells Fargo analyst Bonnie Herzog.
Investors should watch to see when the FDA approves IQOS devices and whether these products provides the sales lift Altria and PMI want. They should also pay attention to a possible IPO for Juul, given the sizable stake Altria now owns in the unicorn.
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