WASHINGTON — Facing mounting government pressure and a public backlash over the epidemic of teenage vaping, Juul Labs announced on Tuesday that it would stop selling most of its flavored e-cigarette pods in retail stores and would discontinue its social media promotions.
The decision by the San Francisco-based company, which has more than 70 percent of the e-cigarette market share in the United States, was made as the Food and Drug Administration moved forward with a plan to ban sales of flavored e-cigarettes in convenience stores and gas stations. The agency was expected to announce its formal plan, which also included stepping up the requirements for age verification of online sales of flavored e-cigarette products, later this week.
In recent months, the F.D.A. has mounted an increasingly aggressive campaign against the major manufacturers of vaping products that appeal to youths, focusing particularly on Juul. The company’s sleek product resembles a flash-drive and has been sold in flavors like creme and mango, leading public health officials to criticize the company and others for appearing to market directly to teenagers who are especially vulnerable to nicotine addiction.
“Our intent was never to have youth use Juul,” said Kevin Burns, chief executive of Juul Labs in a statement emailed to reporters. “But intent is not enough. The numbers are what matter and the numbers tell us underage use of e-cigarettes is a problem.”
But critics and public health advocates said the company had no choice, especially after the F.D.A. raided its headquarters last month seeking documents related to marketing and it came under scrutiny by some states investigating whether its tactics were directly aimed at minors.
Caroline Renzulli, a spokeswoman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called Juul’s announcement too little too late. “Juul’s social media marketing fueled its popularity with kids,” she said. “Now that it has captured 75 percent of the e-cigarette market, Juul no longer needs to do social media marketing because its young customers are doing it for them.”
The F.D.A. acknowledged earlier this year that it had been caught off-guard by the soaring popularity of vaping among minors, and also began targeting retail outlets that were selling the products to minors. In September, it gave Juul and manufacturers of a few other flavored e-cigarettes and vaping products 60 days to submit plans to prove they could keep them away from minors. That deadline passed this past weekend.
More than three million middle and high school students reported using e-cigarettes, according to preliminary unpublished government data, with about one-third of them saying the flavors were a big factor in their choice.
Mr. Burns said that as of Tuesday, Juul would stop accepting retail orders for mango, fruit, creme and cucumber Juul pods, but would continue to sell menthol, mint and tobacco flavors that are also available in regular tobacco cigarettes. Buried in the back of the announcement, however, the company said it would renew sales of those products at retail outlets that invested in age-verification technology. A timetable for resuming those sales was not announced.
In addition, Juul said it would shut down its Facebook and Instagram accounts in the United States that promoted use of the flavored pods. According to its release, the company said it would ask the major social media companies, including Twitter and Snapchat, to help them “police” posts that promote the use of e-cigarettes or cigarettes by underage users.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the F.D.A. commissioner, said officials had met with several e-cigarette and tobacco companies to discuss ways to reduce youth vaping after threatening to take e-cigarettes off the market if the companies could not curb teenage sales.
Some companies have indicated they would heed the F.D.A.’s warnings. In October, Altria said it would discontinue most of its flavored e-cigarettes and stop selling some brands entirely. For the first time, the tobacco giant also said it would support a law raising the age to 21 for the purchase of all tobacco and vaping products, a proposal it had previously resisted.
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., a subsidiary of British American Tobacco, also submitted plans to the F.D.A. on Friday that backed the higher age limit.
Michael Shannon, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, said it also agreed not to market products through social media influencers and would also require age-verification for access to the website where it sells e-cigarette VUSE.
The tobacco company stopped short of promising to take VUSE, which comes in berry and other flavors, out of retail stores, but Mr. Shannon said RJR Tobacco would enforce contractual penalties for retailers that sell tobacco products to youths. In addition, the company plans to launch a mystery shopping program to check compliance.
On Tuesday, CNBC reported that Fontem Ventures, a unit of Imperial Tobacco Group, would raise the minimum age to buy pods on its website to 21. The company sells blu e-cigarettes, which come in various fruity flavors.
Since it came on the market in 2015, Juul has become catnip to teenagers, who had been drilled since preschool days on the perils of cigarette smoking. The name itself sounded like a mash-up of “jewel” and “cool.”
Unlike the clunky older vapes, the compact device could readily evade detection from parents and teachers. It not only looked like a flash drive, it could be recharged in a computer’s USB port. And the flavors were both alluring and sophisticated. And it offered a way for teenagers to rebel and appear hip, without leading to cancer.
And so Juul became a fast, furious hit among high school and even middle school students. A comprehensive report on e-cigarettes in January by National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine noted that 11 percent of all high school students, or nearly 1.7 million, had vaped within the last month. Preliminary unpublished federal data estimates that number now to be at least 3 million. By now, students have their own vocabulary built around Juul — “juuling” has become a verb.
Schools around the country were caught unaware. The aerosol mist from Juul is nearly odorless and dissipates within seconds. Students began juuling as teachers’ backs were turned. They filled school bathrooms for juuling breaks. And for all that school officials knew, students were just recharging flash drives diligently on laptops.
Within 18 months of Juul’s release, school officials began confiscating them and providing information sessions to parents. They had two paramount concerns: the increasing use of Juul and other vapes for marijuana and the amount of nicotine in Juul’s pods. Nicotine, the naturally occurring chemical in tobacco, is the addictive element that binds smokers to cigarettes and vapers to Juul and other e-cigarettes. Teenagers, whose brains are still developing, need less exposure to nicotine than adults in order to become addicted.
But perhaps most worrisome was a conclusion reached by the National Academies: that teenagers who use the devices may be at higher risk for cigarette smoking.