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04/12/2021

Vape expectations: An interview with Michael Nederhoff of Juul Labs Canada

The enactment of the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act on May 23, 2018, opened up a whole new category for convenience operators, one that many hoped would help offset the steady decrease in revenue from cigarette sales, while supporting initiatives to help tobacco smokers reduce harm by transitioning to vaping. Since then, the Act—designed to regulate the manufacture, sale, labelling and promotion of tobacco products and vaping products sold in Canada—has consistently evolved, putting greater restrictions on the selling of vape products at the c-store level. CSNC caught up with Michael Nederhoff, then-president of Juul Labs Canada Ltd. to talk about the challenges, responsibilities and opportunities as c-store operators navigate the ever-evolving vape category. (Nederhoff announced April 13 that he is leaving Juul, but his insights and advice still make for an interesting read.)

With the rise of new regulations and restrictions at both the federal and provincial level, everyone is mindful about the messaging around vaping: What is being done to ensure that convenience stores remain a viable channel and resource for adults who vape?

MN: At Juul Labs Canada, we remain committed to helping move adult smokers away from cigarettes. However, adult smokers can’t switch to nicotine alternatives if they don’t have access to those products, and in Canada the majority of those products are sold in the c-store channel. 

The erosion of trust in our category has led governments to adopt policies that have the unintended effect of incentivizing adult smokers to stay with cigarettes or even return to them after transitioning. To achieve the harm-reduction potential of vaping products as an alternative to smoking we believe vaping products should be available everywhere that cigarettes are sold. 

However, progress in harm reduction for adult smokers cannot come at the cost of high levels of underage use. In recent years, there has been an unacceptable rise in underage use of vaping products in Canada. That's why we need to reset the category together. Educating and working hand in hand with our retail partners on compliance and access control is critical in our combined efforts to combat underage access and use. Regulators, policy makers and the public must see our commitment and action to be disciplined and focused on the responsible stewardship of vaping products.  

What advice do you have for c-store operators about speaking to adult smokers about switching to vaping?

MN: For adult smokers interested in moving away from cigarettes to vaping products, the sheer number of alternatives can be confusing to navigate. Our c-store partners are the trusted source for many adult consumers who are looking to choose the right alternative for them. It’s essential to understand that finding the right flavour and nicotine strength is important for a smooth transition off cigarettes. And if an adult smokers’ preferences change over time, that’s okay. That’s why it’s important to ensure that c-store partners are well informed and have the correct information. At Juul Labs Canada, we are exploring new ways to connect with c-store staff, including 1:1 conversations with our territory managers, ZOOM training sessions and video modules through a secure portal. 

With advertising restrictions at the c-store level, how can operators communicate with shoppers about vaping?

MN: The promotion of tobacco and vaping products are illegal in c-stores across Canada, so dark market restrictions can limit awareness of alternatives, shifting the balance a little more towards cigarettes. If an adult smoker is looking for more information on vaping, they should seek guidance from Health Canada’s website. Additionally, if any adult consumer requires more information about Juul products, our website features information about our company’s mission, along with detailed information on our products from the basics like ingredients and how to get started, to quality and standards. 

What messaging is important?

MN: We know that over 60% of smokers in Canada report that they want to quit. And c-store partners want to play a role in transitioning adult smokers away from traditional tobacco, and we would encourage them to use Health Canada endorsed messages. Therefore, adult smokers who can’t or won’t quit cigarettes should completely switch to potentially less harmful alternative nicotine products. It’s with that in mind that Juul products were designed.

What should they avoid?

MN: Nicotine is not benign. Nicotine is addictive and if you don’t use nicotine, don’t start. If you smoke cigarettes, the best thing you can do is quit. However, we know that there are many smokers who won’t quit. For those smokers, as indicated by Health Canada, switching completely to noncombustible products may be a way to reduce their risk of smoking-related disease. Additionally, there is no single product that will work for every smoker. They need access to a broad range of options that can help them leave cigarettes behind. 

What proactive measures can c-store operators take to help curb the youth vaping? 

MN: From an industry and category perspective, we will never be able to achieve our goal of eliminating smoking unless we can combat underage use. In our efforts to reset the vaping products category, policy makers, regulators and the public must be able to have confidence that the vaping industry is a responsible sector. This will be undermined if businesses do not implement and uphold robust age verification processes.

What else needs to happen?

MN: We believe that increasing the minimum age for purchasing tobacco and nicotine vaping products to age 21 is one of the most critical tobacco-control strategies to combat underage use. That is because it directly addresses social sourcing, the largest contributor to underage access of vaping products throughout the country. Social sourcing is when minors receive or are sold age-restricted products by legal-aged friends, family, or classmates. According to Health Canada, social sourcing accounts for almost 60 to 70% of underage usage of vaping products. The U.S. passed such a law federally in 2019 (referred to as “Tobacco 21”) and in Canada, Prince Edward Island instituted this law in 2020. If Canada were to adopt this same legislation nationally, we could have the potential to significantly reduce underage use of all tobacco and vaping products.

We also believe c-store partners can fundamentally change how vaping products are sold at point-of-sale to further restrict underage access and accelerate the decline in underage use. New technology standards exist that can automate the transaction from beginning-to-end to ensure all age-restricted products, including Juul products, are sold to verified legal-aged purchasers.Until the technology is available everywhere, it’s important to continue to check consumer’s IDs to verify their age. And if you’re unsure how to say no, simply state “I apologize for the inconvenience, but I can't sell vaping products to you without your ID.” We can all help each other to do the right thing and sell responsibility. 

What other issues are shaping the space?

MN: We know there is agreement from industry, public health officials, and law enforcement that more needs to be done about counterfeits and knock-off products that are making their way into the Canadian market, especially disposable vaping products. These products will continue to proliferate, especially as access to legitimate nicotine concentrations and flavoured vaping products increasingly become restricted. Black market products can carry significant dangers to users, are produced with unknown quality standards and ingredients, and come in youth-appealing flavours. Strong enforcement is needed to help eliminate these unlawful products from the marketplace. Support and assistance from our c-store partners is critical so these illegal products stay out of the market. If c-store staff have any leads on suspicious products being sold, please connect with your Juul Labs Canada territory manager so our team can take appropriate action.

Can you tell us about new technologies or product innovations in the pipeline?

MN: Our product strategy and roadmap is very exciting as it will not only address the needs of adult smokers but will help build trust with regulators and society. We hope to share more over the coming months ahead. 

 

Originally published in the March/April 2021 issue of Convenience Store News Canada magazine.