2018 was a bad year for JUUL. Articles about high school administrators and public officials calling teenage juuling an epidemic never ceased. In October, the FDA raided the company headquarters in San Francisco to collect information about the company’s marketing and distribution practices. The company still maintains its primary mission is to help adult smokers quit by providing “healthier” alternative.
Here’s why that line of argument is a PR driven fallacy: a higher portion of people aged 15-17 are using JUUL at least once a month than those aged 25-34. Adam Bowen, one of the co-founders, has admitted that they knew teenage addiction was a potential risk when the product was created. Their initial marketing was also heavily targeted at teenagers (screenshots from its now wiped out Instagram and Twitter account can be found here).
JUUL says the company has changed. It has stopped advertising in social media, and have publicly announced that it is willing to work with FDA to curb the teenage juuling problem. They have even raised the age of models in their marketing materials to 35. Its actions outside marketing, however, say that very little has changed.
Cavorting with Big Tobacco
In a move that came as contradictory to its primary mission, JUUL announced Altria Group’s 35% buyout of the company on December, 2018. Altria is the maker of popular cigarette brands like Marlboro and Parliament, and is one of world’s largest cigarette manufacturers. Why is this problematic? The deal gives JUUL access to an extremely powerful lobbying force, one that is known to arm-twist politicians to keep regulations at bay. More alarmingly, Altria has a history of funding anti-anthropogenic climate change organizations with bigger purpose of discrediting science. JUUL itself hasn’t cited any medical research or study to bolster its defense till date. But with this new ownership deal, the company is expected to use the same lobbying techniques used by big tobacco, the very entity that JUUL proclaims itself to be the antidote for.
The deal also give JUUL Altria’s shelf space in retail stores. Given that a big chunk of JUUL’s “action plan” to combat teenage use is implementing a more stringent age verification process in its website and moving flavored pods exclusively to its online store, the need for bigger shelf-space suggests JUUL plans to offset any monetary impact of the website-focused action plan by increasing its sales in harder-to-regulate retail stores. This way the company can maintain its seemingly sincere narrative around working towards addressing teen JUUL usage while quietly expanding its distribution via less regulated channels.
The Altria-JUUL deal is reminiscent of Oxycontin producer Purdue Pharma patenting drugs that help addicts get off of Oxycontin and other opioids. Neither Altria nor Purdue have any incentive for nicotine or opioid addiction to completely subside. This makes JUUL’s purported mission to help smokers quit diametrically opposed to one of its significant stakeholders’ interest.
On a subtler note, JUUL has also become less transparent about JUUL pods and their nicotine equivalence to cigarettes. The nicotine dosage from one single JUUL pod is equivalent to one pack of cigarettes (there are 4 pods in a packet). This information can be a deterrent to non-smokers, given that 63% of young JUUL users aren’t aware that JUUL pods contain nicotine. While previously noted in their website as well as their pod packets, this data is now removed from their website. It is also absent from its newer 3% pod packets.
No Low Nicotine Pods in the U.S.
Another decision that contradicts JUUL’s narrative is the unavailability of 1.7% nicotine pods in the U.S. While JUUL was forced to limit the nicotine strength of its pods to 1.7% in the EU, the company has yet to bring those low strength pods to the U.S. All eight flavors available in the U.S. come with 5% nicotine strength, with only two flavors (tobacco and mint) available in 3%. This could be a strategic move on JUUL’s part. In a 2017 study of more than 6,000 young tobacco product users, over 80% said they used flavored products. Three-fourths of flavored product users said they would not use the product if it was not flavored.
The effects of nicotine on a teen brain is well documented. According to CDC, nicotine can stunt teenage brain development, especially the parts that control attention, learning, and impulse control. There is also evidence that indicate teenagers who develop nicotine addiction via e-cigarettes are more likely to become cigarette smokers in the future. Even among adult smokers lower levels of nicotine products is a known cessation technique. Yet, JUUL has no plans to sell low nicotine pods in the U.S., despite already selling them in other countries.
Same Audience, New Techniques
One of JUUL’s main point of arguments against increased criticism around underage juuling has been its small marketing spend. In a statement, the company said:
We utilize stringent online tools to block attempts by those under the age of 21 from purchasing our products, including unique ID match and age verification technology. Furthermore, we have never marketed to anyone underage. In fact, we have done very little marketing relative to our growth. Like many Silicon Valley technology startups, our growth is not the result of marketing but rather a superior product disrupting an archaic industry.
This argument becomes irrelevant when one takes into account the huge popularity vaping already enjoys on social media. There are underage vape influencers sponsored by JUUL compatible third party pods, and thousands of youtube videos are available on topics ranging from device reviews to hiding JUUL from parents and teachers.
Still, has the company stopped targeting youths? Not necessarily. Starting this year, JUUL has begun selling colored JUUL devices, a take on Instagram popular JUUL skins. In just last few months, the company has introduced Maroon and Turquoise as device color options. While the company publicly appeases the FDA via conciliatory company statements on Twitter, there couldn’t be a bolder indication that JUUL is not yet done wooing the Instagram generation.