A recent investigation by Reuters has revealed that JUUL Labs, Inc. was fully aware that its innovative “nicotine salts” were highly addictive as teens and young adults were lining up to buy their new products – and did nothing to prevent the current vaping epidemic.

Former employees say that before JUUL rolled out its new product line in 2015, e-cigarettes were poor sellers for two reasons: too little nicotine or harsh taste. The company studied research carried out during the 20th Century by tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds and other cigarette companies that had spent tremendous resources in attempts to create the ideal balance between flavor and nicotine delivery – helping to ensure that smokers would become addicted.

JUUL’s efforts paid off brilliantly. The solution they found was benzoic acid, a derivative of bark harvested from trees of the genus styrax (more commonly known as the Japanese snowbell). Benzoic acid is a common food preservative and has medical and therapeutic uses, but can also be an eye and skin irritant – and if inhaled, can cause respiratory distress.

Added to vape liquids, however, it provides the ideal balance between flavor and nicotine delivery – at least for e-cigarette manufacturers. Benzoic acid puts nicotine delivery on proverbial steroids, providing a faster, more direct path to the brain. In fact, the effects were so powerful that some engineers at JUUL wanted to put a “dosage control” device on their e-cigarettes that would cause them to shut down after a certain number of puffs. Chenyue Xing, a scientist formerly employed at JUUL Labs who helped in the development of the company’s new nicotine salts, told Reuters, “We didn’t want to introduce a new product with a stronger addictive power.”

That dosage control feature was never incorporated into JUUL’s e-cigarettes.

Today, JUUL and other e-cigarette companies face criticism and growing scrutiny from lawmakers and regulatory agencies for allegedly targeting young people through its advertising and the development of fruit and candy flavorings in its vape liquids. But the current investigation provides damning evidence that the company’s first concern was over potency and potential for addiction – which would ensure a steady customer for decades to come.

In response to the present allegations, JUUL has had no comment. The company has repeated earlier assertions that it was never its intention to sell to minors, but rather to cigarette smokers by offering them a similar experience.

Now, JUUL’s sweet success has turned bitter as cases of the vape-related lung disease now known as EVALI continue to surface. While there are questions over whether or not its nicotine products are responsible for this disease (most of cases appear to be caused by bootleg cannabis vape products), JUUL – along with other producers of nicotine vape – are now suffering the consequences. These recent revelations will not help JUUL’s tarnished and deteriorating public image.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.