Since its launch in 2015, the e-cigarette maker JUUL has captured 70% of the American market. The company’s advertising and its product’s design enabled the most dramatic rise in youth tobacco use the country has ever seen.
Despite an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary, JUUL continues to claim that it was blindsided by the youth vaping epidemic spurred on by its products. In 2018, JUUL Labs Chief Administration Officer Ashley Gould even told CNN, “We were completely surprised by the youth usage of the product.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. While JUUL pleads ignorance in public, the company’s private communications reveal a much different story.
Investigation of JUUL Shows Deliberate Marketing to Kids as Young as Third Grade
On July 25, U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, released a memo based on their investigation of internal JUUL documents. According to the memo (quoted directly):
- JUUL deployed a sophisticated program to enter schools and convey its messaging directly to teenage children.
- JUUL also targeted teenagers and children, as young as eight years old, in summer camps and public out-of-school programs.
- JUUL recruited thousands of online “influencers” to market to teens.
The House investigation is at odds with the story JUUL likes to tell about their role in the youth vaping epidemic. At a congressional hearing on youth vaping held the same day as the memo was released, convened by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, representatives had their chance to ask JUUL to explain themselves.
Gould, who testified alongside James Monsees, CEO and Co-Founder of JUUL, faced a tough line of questioning from Rep. Katie Hill (D-CA). Hill laid out evidence showing that JUUL had knowingly used Big Tobacco’s strategy of reaching young consumers by paying for faux-prevention programs that infiltrated schools and church groups.
In response, Gould claimed, “We have never marketed to kids. Anything that we undertook in the educational space was intended to keep youth away from vaping products.” So far, JUUL has been able to float this narrative, but with all of the internal documents on the table, the fairy tale falls apart. Hill immediately asked Gould:
“You don’t think it’s weird? You don’t think any of this sounds strange? To find a select group of people who are of a specific demographic that is highly vulnerable to marketing, the type of marketing, the type of ‘education’ that you’re providing to use your product? You don’t think that sounds strange at all?”
Gould said that they stopped this type of programing once they realized how it was being perceived.
Also not true.
Minutes before, Hill had already proven that public health officials had reached out to JUUL with their concerns about in-school programming a month before the company wrote a $134,000 check to fund a summer camp at a charter school in Baltimore.
JUUL Gets Data on Young Users — Won’t Say Why
The closer one looks at the contract, the worse it gets. Students for the Baltimore program would be recruited from grades 3 through 12, and in exchange for the huge payout, Hill said:
“The charter school committed to sharing student data. This is the part that is particularly disturbing to me. . .
Paying to access data from kids as young as 8 is alarming, to say the least, and I can only imagine the possible uses of that data in the hands of a big tobacco company like JUUL.”
Under the guise of prevention, it looks like JUUL was conducting market research on children, some under 10-years-old. When pressed, Gould would not say why JUUL collected that data because she was unfamiliar with the details.
This last bit of evasion is particularly hard to swallow given that the latest JUUL product is designed to collect information about its user. The new Bluetooth-enabled JUUL devices will employ facial recognition, track how many puffs a person takes and help them locate the device if it is lost.
Though JUUL says the GPS and other data will remain private, this latest attempt to track users of its unregulated products dovetails neatly into the company’s short but effective history of using technology to target the most vulnerable groups.
Dispelling JUUL’s Myths About Youth Vaping
Along with the JUUL leadership, the Oversight and Reform Committee also heard from various public health experts who have been scrambling to address the crisis JUUL created by hawking their product directly to teens and preteens.
Mathew Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, used his testimony to clear up a few of the myths about youth e-cigarette use that JUUL wants the American public to believe.
First, Myers asserted that there is definitive data showing that e-cigarette users are roughly 3-4 times more likely than non-users to try traditional cigarettes. The idea that e-cigarettes are helping young smokers quit is unproven, and the studies indicate that the products may even be an on-ramp to combustible cigarettes.
Second, JUUL and its supporters continue to claim that people who already smoke make up the majority of its users. Myers disputed that notion, citing a growing body of consistent evidence.
“It’s not that e-cigarettes are replacing cigarettes. E-cigarettes are drawing a whole new body of kids in,” he said. “42% of kids who use e-cigarettes use no other product and never have.”
Third, kids are not just experimenting with JUUL. The number of kids who quickly become daily users of JUUL is staggering. The rate at which new users become addicted is much higher for JUUL than for traditional cigarettes.
According to Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, who testified on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP):
“Of students surveyed who said they had ever used combusted tobacco daily, only 17% said they remained daily smokers. However, of the students who reported having ever used e-cigarettes daily, 58% remained daily users.”
Once a kid is hooked on nicotine, it is very difficult for them to quit. This is how JUUL gains lifetime users of their products.
“When so much of the product that JUUL profits from ends up in the hands of children,” said Winickoff, “it is time we declare JUUL a failed product. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that JUUL is a public health threat that must be removed from the market as soon as possible.”
Myers castigated the company for its behavior. Looking at the documents, he said it was obvious that the company rushed sweet-flavored products to market to avoid FDA regulation. Did they know that sweet flavors attract young users? Absolutely. This has been known for decades by the tobacco industry and public health community.
Did they run studies to see if the chemical flavorings were safe? Of course not. Now that studies are coming out about the potential health risks of e-cigarette flavors, this reckless rush to market looks all the more criminal.
“Pleas of innocence, inconsistent with the actual facts of what happened, need to be examined,” said Myers. “This is not an issue of kids vs. adults. This is about holding companies responsible.”
There was a time when the public health community thought that e-cigarette makers were interested in making a positive difference in the lives of adults who smoke traditional cigarettes. JUUL has destroyed that goodwill by marketing their products directly to children, and the federal government needs to act now before more damage is done.