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Juul shipped a million contaminated e-cigarette pods, claims lawsuit from former employee

BMJ 2019; 367 doi: (Published 01 November 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l6333
  1. Elisabeth Mahase
  1. The BMJ

The US electronic cigarette company Juul has been accused of shipping one million contaminated e-cigarette nicotine pods, in a lawsuit filed by a former employee.

Siddharth Breja, who was the company’s senior vice president for finance until March 2019, has claimed that his employment was unlawfully terminated in “retaliation for whistleblowing and objecting to the contaminated pod shipment and other illegal and unsafe conduct that has jeopardized and continues to jeopardize public health and safety and the lives of millions of consumers, many of them children and teens.”

The lawsuit, filed on 29 October at the US District Court of the Northern District of California, outlines the situations in which Breja said he raised concerns about decisions allegedly made by senior members of staff.

These, Breja alleges, included intentions to ship expired or nearly expired products, refusing to put expiration dates on products, and a proposal to trick EU regulators so that the company could sell a product that would exceed nicotine concentration restrictions.

Juul has told The BMJ that the claims were “meritless” and that it planned to “vigorously defend this lawsuit.”

Breja’s complaint, shared by the news website Buzzfeed,1 claims, “In total disregard for the law, public safety, and public health, Juul has sent to market, at a minimum, approximately one million mint-flavored e-cigarette nicotine pods that it admits were contaminated.”

The document also alleges that on or around 12 March 2019 Breja learnt that some batches of Mint eLiquid were found to be contaminated (the contaminant is not specified) and that approximately 250 000 Mint Refill Kits, the equivalent of one million contaminated pods, had already been shipped to retailers and were being sold to customers. But Juul refused to issue a product recall for the contaminated pods, Breja said, or to issue a public health and safety notice to consumers. He claims that nevertheless he was asked to “recover approximately $7 000 000 from the supplier of this eLiquid” because of the contamination.

Breja claims that when he raised his concerns that the company was “violating the law, as well as ethical rules, and exposing the company to risk,” he was told to “remember his loyalty to Juul.”

Breja alleges that the termination of his employment occurred around one week after he raised concerns about the pods. According to the lawsuit, Juul informed Breja that his termination was due to an apparent inaccuracy with his past employment.

Another allegation made in the lawsuit is that Juul has developed a new product, internally called the “Turbo,” that would double the normal vape density allowed in some countries, specifically in the European Union, where the restriction on nicotine concentration is a maximum strength (nicotine by weight) of 1.7%, whereas in the US it is 5%.

According to Breja, “Juul’s idea was to trick government regulators and consumers in those foreign jurisdictions into thinking that the Turbo only contained a better battery life or was no different from the standard product, despite the fact that it was intended to illegally double the vape density (in essence delivering 3.4% nicotine strength), hooking European consumers even more quickly.”

The lawsuit also makes allegations about the working environment at Juul. It claims the former chief executive, Kevin Burns, who resigned on 25 September, ran the company in a “dictatorial manner and fostered a culture of silence.”

The complaint says, “After an FDA raid on Juul’s headquarters in San Francisco in October, 2018, in a regular Tuesday morning executive team meeting, Juul’s executives, including Mr Breja, were instructed by Mr Burns not to mention anything relating to regulatory or safety issues in writing, over email, texts, or even the internal messaging application, ‘Slack.’ Otherwise, Mr Burns said, the FDA would be able to obtain those writings in further raids or other proceedings and the company needed to ensure that did not happen.”

It goes on to claim that Burns acted in a “win-at-all-costs, reckless fashion” and that he referred to himself as the “king” of Juul.

In another alleged incident outlined in the lawsuit, Burns apparently said, when referring to shipping out expired or nearly expired pods, “Half our customers are drunk and vaping like mo-fos, who the fuck is going to notice the quality of our pods?”

Burns has denied making this statement,2 stating. “I never said this, or anything remotely close to this, period. As CEO, I had the company make huge investments in product quality and the facts will show this claim is absolutely false and pure fiction.”

Juul spokesman Ted Kwong told The BMJ, “Mr Breja’s claims are baseless. He was terminated in March 2019 because he failed to demonstrate the leadership qualities needed in his role. 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 company will vigorously defend this lawsuit.”