While intent can sometimes be difficult to prove, it is undeniable that JUUL Labs products appeal to young people.
Their old marketing materials, which JUUL has tried to distance itself from, have youth appeal. They allegedly knew they were attracting underage users over a year before trying to adjust the course.
JUUL showcases the problems present in what is largely a poorly regulated industry.
What is JUUL?
Juul (often stylized as JUUL) Labs is a company that primarily sells e-cigarettes and related materials that, at least on the surface, are designed to help smokers quit smoking. These e-cigarettes can deliver a dose of nicotine and vapor that many claims can serve as a middle ground measure to wean a person off cigarettes or other tobacco products.
JUUL Labs sells JUUL Devices, which are e-cigarettes roughly the size of a USB drive. They can be charged via USB, and they are loaded with cartridges called pods. These pods allow the device to deliver a stimulus, not unlike smoking.
It is important to note that, while generally safer than cigarettes, the effectiveness of e-cigarettes for quitting smoking is debated. Electronic cigarettes carry their own set of health and addiction risks.
While not the only e-cigarette company, JUUL leads the industry and has been accused of engaging in controversial and potentially illegal practices. JUUL e-cigarettes have proven very popular with minors, who cannot legally purchase the products in the United States.
Related to this issue, there have also been numerous problems with retailers selling these products to underage users. On April 14, 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement on this matter. Among a variety of things, the letter expressed FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s deep concern over JUUL’s youth appeal and the ability for minors to so easily get the products.
Perhaps the most important question to many people is whether the rise in youth e-cigarette use, with as many as one in five high schoolers using them at least once a month, is a direct consequence of JUUL willfully targeting youth with their advertising or simply an accidental consequence of marketing a product that is genuinely trying to help adults quit smoking. The results of such an examination prove troubling.
Lake County, Illinois Lawsuit
Recently, the Lake County State Attorney’s Office in Illinois filed a lawsuit against JUUL alleging they had deceptively marketed their products to teens, breaking multiple laws in the process. The claims made by Lake County, which are echoed by many others, include the fact that JUUL seems to have used marketing tactics very closely resembling those used by tobacco companies before regulations were put in place that severely restricted how tobacco could be advertised.
The lawsuit draws connections to the fact that nicotine use by minors was falling in the 1990s, and JUUL, through its use of trendy marketing and influencers, sought to capitalize on what they viewed as an open market.
Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges JUUL’s product contains numerous health risks that were not disclosed to consumers, including:
- An increased risk of developing a major depressive disorder.
- An increased risk of developing panic disorder.
- An increased risk of developing agoraphobia.
- An increased risk of developing a future drug addiction.
- Thirty-one chemicals are known to be chemical carcinogens and respiratory irritants.
JUUL countered these claims with the (true) claim that they have radically adjusted their marketing tactics and have tried to distance themselves from “inappropriate social media content generated by others” by exiting Instagram and Facebook (popular places to market to youth).
However the case turns out, many will say JUUL’s shift is too late to stop the flow of youth users. They also will, perhaps rightfully, claim that JUUL is shifting marketing tactics purely due to the controversy they have generated, not out of a genuine desire to ensure youth do not buy their products. Notably, whether they shift now or not, it appears many minors are going to be addicted to their or similar products. Damage has demonstrably been done, whether intentional or not.
Claims From A Former Manager
It has been reported that JUUL knew their product appealed to teens at least by early 2015. While they made sure all models used in their promotional materials were of legal age to use the product, it would be over a year before an effort was made to curb marketing and make a major effort to reduce teen use.
A study from the Stanford University School of Medicine on JUUL’s marketing largely backs up these claims. It found that while JUUL’s mission statement and written materials consistently claim to be for adult smokers only, its marketing materials did not reflect this statement and seemed designed to appeal to youth.
Perhaps one of their more troubling practices was compensating influencers for positive reviews of their products while insisting they not reveal the mutually beneficial relationship.
What Draws Minors to Use E-Cigarettes?
The reasons someone might choose to use drugs (and nicotine is indeed a drug, even if it is a somewhat mild one) vary.
Unfortunately, one big element to teens using products like JUUL appears to be misinformation.
According to one study, as many as 66 percent of teen users thought their JUUL pods contained only flavoring. Only 13.2 percent of teen users actually correctly said they contained nicotine.
Whether this misinformation is intentional or not is an issue being discussed. Two teens testified to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform that, at one point, their 9th-grade class was put alone in a room with a JUUL representative and told the products were “totally safe.” While they were also told they were not wanted as customers, many say this was almost just another marketing gimmick meant to appeal to the rebellious side of youth.
The claim that e-cigarettes, including JUUL Devices, are “totally safe” is factually and provably false. Nicotine is addictive and can cause several issues already discussed, in addition to the negative properties of any other chemicals added to such devices. “Safer than cigarettes” is a more accurate claim, but they are not safe and certainly not recommended for teens or younger people.
In addition to the already discussed issues with JUUL’s marketing, their product specifically has a sleeker design that is small and looks not unlike a USB flash drive.
As discussed by different sources, this may have contributed to their product’s popularity among youth as well.
It looks like a trendy new iPhone or a similar product (and is often called the “iPhone of e-cigarettes”). It is easy to conceal from schools or legal authorities that ban their use.
While they have stopped selling them, JUUL used to sell a variety of colorful flavor pods that seemed to mimic the flavored cigarettes famously marketed, either directly or indirectly, to children before tighter regulations mostly put a stop to the practice.
JUUL pulled these flavors because they were indeed linked to appealing to children.
It also seems to be too late, as this has simply lead competitors in the poorly regulated industry to fill the gap in the market.
Is JUUL Marketing to Minors?
In the past, at the very least, it seems JUUL was willfully benefitting from underage use of their product. This use was largely a result of a trendy marketing campaign that seems aimed at a young demographic, although it would be difficult to prove the campaign was intentionally aimed specifically at underage users.
This campaign was not adjusted promptly when the results of it (that teens were using their product) should have been, and allegedly, were known. Additionally, many of their marketing images and the design of their products seem designed to associate using JUUL with being “cool” rather than it being a useful aid to fight nicotine addiction.
JUUL has undeniably made at least some steps to control their marketing and the public image of their product in recent months. However, it seems likely that this is a result of the backlash they received and the looming risk of government regulation in what is clearly a poorly regulated industry.
Whether JUUL is still intentionally marketing to minors is up for debate, but it is largely irrelevant —either economically or from the perspective of a public health crisis (although it represents what is likely a legally important debate). They have the underage market now due to their past actions. Whatever minors they might lose as they adjust their image and cease selling certain products (like their fruit-flavored pods) are still being picked up by similar copycat companies that face less scrutiny.
JUUL’s practices are undeniably being mimicked. The company leads the industry. It, unfortunately, is also showcasing how much damage a poorly regulated industry that peddles any kind of drug with a health risk can have, especially when it can appeal to young and impressionable people.