Juul Finds It Is Tough to Quit Vaping in the Office

E-cigarette maker tries to snuff out a habit from its early days: use of its own product at headquarters

Juul threatened in September to dock the bonuses of staffers who vape at work despite local and state laws that prohibit the practice. PHOTO: GABBY JONES/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Every new year brings a wave of smokers pledging to quit. Many people who work at Juul Labs Inc. have already ditched cigarettes. Trouble is, they won’t stop vaping in the office.

Vaping at work has been part of Juul’s culture since the startup’s early days. Last year, the leader of the e-cigarette market prohibited its staff from vaping in most of its U.S. offices, saying it had to do so to comply with local and state laws as well as some of its lease agreements.

But Juul is still struggling to enforce the rule, even after threatening in September to dock employees’ bonuses as punishment.

Employees vape at their desks, in hallways, in meetings and on videoconferences—at the company’s San Francisco headquarters and elsewhere around the country, Juul employees say.

One employee compared the scene to the workplace depicted in the 1960s-period cable drama “Mad Men.” “Just replace the cigarettes with e-cigarettes,” he said.

“We remain committed to maintaining a smoke and vapor-free workplace in compliance with state and local laws,” a Juul spokesman said. “We take this commitment very seriously and take appropriate actions against violations.”

From the early days of Ploom Inc.—the company that would become Pax Labs and later Juul—  , according to former employees. The practice began with their first product, Ploom, a device that heated but didn’t burn solid tobacco leaf. It continued after the 2015 launch of the Juul e-cigarette, a sleek device that is shaped like a USB drive and heats a flavored nicotine solution. Many staffers have used Juul to quit smoking traditional cigarettes, company officials have said.

Juul’s San Francisco headquarters. Then-CEO Kevin Burns promised to erect a tent for e-cigarette use outside the building, but the shelter was never installed. PHOTO: KATHERINE BINDLEY/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Last December, after the startup received inquiries from the city of San Francisco and other officials, the company’s then-chief executive, Kevin Burns, sent an email to employees announcing they could no longer vape in the office.

“It may feel nonsensical to prohibit at-work use of the very products we work hard to create and promote,” Mr. Burns wrote in the email. “But the bottom line is we need to comply with legal requirements the same as any company.”

He promised in the email to erect a tent for e-cigarette use outside the company’s San Francisco headquarters. The shelter was never installed.

In June, the city became the first in the U.S. to prohibit sales of all e-cigarettes.

Vaping in Juul’s offices abated somewhat after Mr. Burns’s email, employees said. Some tried to vape more discreetly, by tucking a Juul into the sleeve of a sweater, for example. But others, including the founders, have continued to do it openly, employees said. Messrs. Bowen and Monsees didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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Juul’s human-resources department this year fielded complaints from a few employees about colleagues vaping in their workspaces, according to people familiar with the matter. One woman requested permission to work from home because she had concerns about the health effects of inhaling secondhand vapor, the people said. She was moved to a different work location.

In September, not long after the woman’s complaint, Mr. Burns issued a new memo. This time, he outlined disciplinary action. Employees caught vaping would receive a warning on the first offense. On the second and third offenses, their bonuses would be docked in increasing amounts. The fourth offense could be punishable with termination.

It was one of his last memos. Soon afterward, a top executive from tobacco giant Altria Group Inc., which is a major Juul investor, succeeded Mr. Burns. Seeking to address concerns about youth vaping, Juul pulled most of its flavors off the market. Then it laid off 650 staffers.