E-cigarette maker Juul is opening its first retail store in Canada .
The Juul store in Toronto's west-end, which opened to customers Monday, marks the California-based company's first brick-and-mortar location in North America.
The stores opens mid mounting concern about the rise of teen vaping. Upon entering, Juul says all visitors will be asked to provide identification to prove they meet Ontario's legal age of 19 to purchase vaping products before they can pass through the clouded glass doors concealing the offerings from public view.
Those who gain entry will find Juul's devices and cartridges laid out on tables in the sleek showroom style of an Apple store. Patrons can interact with the devices, but not test them, because vaping is prohibited indoors.
At a media preview this week, Michael Nederhoff, general manager of Juul Labs in Canada, said the store was designed to be an "educational venue'' for adult smokers looking to learn about vaping.
But as Juul has emerged as Canada's leading vaping brand, critics say the company is at risk of creating a new generation of nicotine addicts in light of recent research suggesting that the prevalence of teenage vaping has nearly doubled.
In May 2018, Ottawa formally legalized vaping, opening the door for international vaping brands such as Juul to enter the Canadian market.
Since then, Juul has captured a 78% share of Canada's vape market, with its products available at more than 13,000 vape shops and convenience stores across the country, said Nederhoff.
Nick Kadysh, Juul's director of government relations, said the company sees youth vaping as "completely unacceptable'' and has taken steps to prevent its products from getting into the wrong hands.
He cited efforts such as using third-party age verification for online sales, and sending secret shoppers to check roughly 150 stores per month to make sure they're carding customers and following Juul's restrictions on bulk purchases. He said retailers who don't comply may either be "blacklisted'' or reported to Health Canada.
But David Hammond, a public health professor at the University of Waterloo, said Juul and other e-cigarette makers need to go further to stem the 74% surge in vaping by Canadian teens that his research suggests.
Hammond led a study published in the British Medical Journal in June based on online surveys of Canadians aged 16 to 19 in 2017 and 2018.
The researchers found that the number of Canadian teens who said they had vaped in the last month increased to 14.6% in 2018 from 8.4% in 2017.
Hammond said the 2018 surveys straddled the month before and after Juul hit stores in Canada, and within weeks of becoming available, the brand had surged to become the third most popular among Canadian teens.
He said the brand's soaring sales in Canada are particularly alarming in light of trends in the U.S., where researchers found the increase in Juul use accounted for more than two-thirds of the overall rise in youth vaping.
Last week, Juul executives were called before U.S. Congress to field questions from lawmakers about whether the company tried to market its products to youth.
House members pointed to internal documents indicating that Juul planned to push its products on social media and offered funding to schools for anti-vaping education in a program that was quashed after the company learned that big tobacco had backed similar anti-smoking efforts decades earlier.
Juul executives in Canada said neither of those strategies were attempted in Canada, and the company has even advocated for Ottawa to ban social media marketing of vaping products.
Earlier this year, Health Canada proposed new measures to ban the promotion of e-cigarettes in public places, stores and media where young people are likely to encounter them, including point-of-sale advertisements.
Kadysh said the restriction would hinder Juul's ability to reach adult smokers when they're buying cigarettes at their local convenience store and encourage them to switch to what is believed to be a less harmful alternative.
For Hammond, this reluctance speaks volumes about Juul's commitment to preventing youth vaping.
"I think it is (disingenuous) at best for any company to suggest that those types of ads don't reach kids when it is literally inches from the candy,'' he said.
Last month, San Francisco banned the sale of e-cigarettes in a bid to curb underage use. But Hammond said he doesn't think a similar prohibition would be feasible or desirable in Canada.
"We can actually control these products more by having them regulated than just trying to push them under the blanket,'' he said.
"I think it would be a shame if we had to ban them outright because of their potential to help with adult smokers, but we need to find some way of reducing access to kids for sure.''
The retail store will sell JUUL C1, the company’s connected device, which includes features that allow users to monitor their nicotine usage, provide access restrictions to prevent unauthorized use and find their JUUL device if it is lost.
The JUUL C1 connected device can be paired via Bluetooth to a new mobile application. The app is being piloted in Canada to explore and refine its functionalities.
The device, when paired with the app, will include a usage monitor that provides adult smokers with greater visibility into their usage, allowing them to monitor in real-time the number of puffs they take daily, weekly and monthly. The connected device will also provide access restrictions at the user level to prevent unauthorized use and provides adult smokers with the ability to find their JUUL device if it is lost.
“As a company, we are always looking to build on our product portfolio to reach a broader range of smokers, while limiting appeal to youth,” said Nederhoff. “We believe the connected device will provide current adult smokers with features they will find valuable. Based on feedback, we plan to refine and enhance the functionality of the app to further improve the user experience.”
The pilot program will continue to run over the coming weeks. JUUL Labs Canada will evaluate feedback and determine whether to expand the device and app further in the country.
With files from Michelle Warren