CEO of vape company Juul says non-smokers shouldn't use their product

The CEO of nicotine vaping company Juul had some surprising advice for people who don't smoke this week: Don't use his company's products.

Kevin Burns tells CBS News that non-smokers shouldn't use vape products

Laws make it hard for minors to get their hands on vape products, but there is a lot of evidence they're popular with young people. (Craig Mitchelldyer/The Associated Press)

The CEO of nicotine vaping company Juul had some surprising advice for people who don't smoke this week: Don't use his company's products.

In an interview with CBS News, Kevin Burns said the company views its core product as a safer alternative to cigarettes, but not something the general non-smoking public at large should be dabbling in.

When asked what his advice is for people who didn't previously consume nicotine, but have recently started vaping because of Juul, his response was blunt.

"Don't vape. Don't use Juul. Don't start using nicotine if you don't have a pre-existing relationship with nicotine. Don't use the product. You are not our target consumer," he said.

The company, which launched its first store in Canada just last month, has courted controversy in recent years because of its booming popularity.

Juul says its electronic cigarettes are safer than conventional cigarettes because they have much lower toxicity levels, but critics say the devices are just making it easier to consume nicotine in the first place.

In the U.S.. vaping nicotine is illegal for anyone under age 21. In Canada, it's either 18 or 19 depending on the province. But numerous governments and regulators are investigating the company for not doing enough to keep the product out of the hands of minors.

The industry takes in roughly $6 billion US in sales a year, about three-quarters of which go to Juul.

The company recently put out new technology that forces retailers to submit a valid proof of age before allowing their product to be sold, a response to criticism Juul is an especially desirable product for minors. Juul says it will stop selling its product to any retailer that doesn't sign up for the new verification system by 2021.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that 193 teens and adults in 22 states have contracted severe respiratory illnesses after vaping. However, they said a clear-cut common cause of the illnesses hasn't been identified.

Critics also took note Marlboro cigarette owner Altria took a one-third stake in the company last winter, and the company has shut down its Facebook and Instagram pages, and pulled several of its flavoured products out of retail stores in response to the criticism.

Against that backdrop, Burns's interview was eye-opening.

"I'm sorry that their kids are using the product," Burns said of parents who blame the company for their children using its products. "We never intended for our product to be used by them. And I have empathy for them for what they're going through."

He said all the products are rigorously tested for toxicity levels and are well within the allowable range.

He also said that on the whole, Juul does a lot more to stop nicotine addiction than to contribute to it.

"I think Juul is absolutely contributing to the decline in the smoking rate in the United States," he said. "As our share of the cigarette industry has grown in the U.S., we have seen a high correlation of decline in the smoking rates in the United States."

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press