The government and Juul, the U.S. maker of electronic cigarettes, are gearing up for a legal showdown after Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said over the weekend he planned to ban sale of the devices.
“The ministry’s stance is that a product that contains a concentration of nicotine that is almost three times the level permitted in the European Union constitutes a danger to public health and justifies immediate and authoritative steps to prevent it from entering the Israeli market,” Litzman said.
The news quickly triggered a threat by the company of an appeal to the High Court of Justice.
In a letter to Raz Nizri — the deputy attorney general for criminal matters, to whom Litzman had appealed on the matter — Juul’s Israeli attorney, Joseph (Yossi) Ashkenazi of Herzog Fox & Neeman, called the proposed ban “illegal.” He said it “constitutes an improper procedure that will not withstand any examination of correct administrative procedures.”
The Juul has quickly emerged as the hottest brand of e-cigarettes in the U.S. market. Sales in Israel began last month in the absence of any legal restrictions, making it the first country outside the United States where the Juul is sold. Critics accused the ministry of failing to act quickly to deter an imminent health threat.
Today, it is permissible in Israel to sell e-cigarettes to children, advertise them freely and smoke them anywhere, although Juul has taken upon itself to bar sales to those under age 18. The only government-imposed restrictions they have faced are from the Education Ministry, which in April issued a circular banning them from schools.
Designed to wean smokers off ordinary cigarettes, Juul has a high-tech feel, comes in attractive colors and trendy flavors such as mango and crème brulee, and has become popular among teenagers.
E-cigarettes are lauded by some as a safer alternative to ordinary smokes because they don’t contain tobacco or produce smoke. In any case, they have been around for less than a decade, so the long-term impact of their use isn’t yet known. But they do contain a lot of nicotine.
Israel’s Health Ministry wants to take the European approach to regulating e-cigarettes, which bans smokes of any kind containing more than 20 milligrams of nicotine. Juul has 59 milligrams of nicotine for every milliliter of liquid, way above the range of six to 30 for other e-cigarettes.
The Health Ministry had a problem in that there is neither legislation nor regulations regarding e-cigarettes. Targeting only the Juul, when there are hundreds of other e-cigarettes on the market, would be legally problematic.
However, Nizri told the ministry last week that it was “right to legally examine” the possible use of the Pharmacists’ Regulations to ban the Juul. The regulations restrict the sale of products that could cause serious health risks. That opinion prompted Litzman to make his announcement.
Subject to Nizri’s approval, the ministry plans to take a multipronged approach that includes enacting regulations limiting the amount of nicotine in e-cigarettes; issuing an administrative order barring sales until the regulations are enacted and advancing regulations that impose the same restrictions on e-cigarettes as on ordinary cigarettes. The latter includes limits on advertising, smoking in public places and age restrictions.
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