Altria CEO says vaping industry is at ‘pivotal moment’ as it fends off an onslaught of public backlash

GP: Altria signage at NYSE 160520
Altria Group signage is displayed on a monitor on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The vaping industry is at a critical juncture right now as e-cigarette companies face an onslaught of regulatory and public backlash amid a deadly outbreak of a vaping lung illness and soaring rates of teen use, Howard Willard, CEO of tobacco giant Altria, said Wednesday.

Federal, state and local health officials in the U.S. have started banning flavored e-cigarettes as hundreds of people across the country fall ill to the vaping lung disease, which has killed at least nine patients in recent weeks.

U.S. health officials have warned consumers to stay away from all vaping products, both nicotine and THC, until they can figure out what’s making people sick.

The “flurry of alarming media headlines about lung illnesses and vaping” have sewn confusion in the public over the health risks of tobacco, he said in a speech Wednesday at the Global Tobacco & Nicotine Forum in Washington, D.C. He urged other tobacco manufacturers to help educate the public.

“From the confusion about the role of nicotine, to the misinformation regarding the relative risks of different products, you have a role to play in helping tobacco consumers make informed decisions,” he said in his prepared remarks. He said the next steps the industry takes “are critically important.”

Altria invested $12.8 billion for a 35% stake in vaping giant Juul late last year, placing a huge bet on the vaping company.

“This is a pivotal moment for the industry and strong leadership and action are urgently needed,” Willard said. “Because we must acknowledge that a key component of harm reduction — vaping — is at an inflection point.”

Earlier Wednesday, Juul announced CEO Kevin Burns was stepping down and would be succeeded by former Altria executive K.C. Crosthwaite.

“I’ve worked closely with K.C. at Altria for many years and am confident in his leadership and integrity and that he will help Juul urgently confront and reduce underage vaping,” Willard said.

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