This week, a class-action lawsuit has been filed against Juul for violating federal laws by marketing to American children.
Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and ten of his Democratic colleagues have written a letter to the CEO of Juul Labs, lambasting the e-cigarette company for prioritizing profits over public health. The biggest concern among the complaints that both the legislators and parents across country have against the vaping-tobacco giant is that Juul purposefully advertises their products for teenagers.
Juul denies such intent, claiming that their product (which has taken over two-thirds of the e-tobacco market according to some sources) is primarily to help traditional adult tobacco consumers quit smoking cigarettes. They’ve even released an ad recently that tried to emphasize this image.
However much they try to pivot to this e-cigarette as a self-care market, their own history is against them. According to the research of Robert Jackler, as profiled on the Smithsonian, the imagery that Juul uses in its advertisements is a throwback to the unregulated day of big tobacco in how it overtly entices youth. This is a part of a growing public health crisis.
Juul first became famous for looking like a USB drive, and became used widely by school children who could trick teachers into thinking they were carrying a harmless device, not a nicotine machine.
One of Jackler’s insights is that today’s teenagers were never as likely to begin smoking traditional cigarettes as people from the late 80s and 90s, so they were an untapped market. The New York Times, reporting on the increasing public pressure the FDA faces to regulate the e-tobacco industry, even went so far as to ask, “Did Juul lure teenagers and get customers for life?”
Juul’s reach to the younger generation was also confirmed by a team of researchers from Stanford University. By analyzing social media posts from Juul’s launch in 2015 to last fall, the Stanford team concluded that where Juul’s real innovation in the smoking and e-cigarette industry was not its product, but the way that it mobilized social media to hook young consumers.
According to an interview with Stanford researchers, “Juul hired social media influencers — people with large followings on Instagram — to promote its products. It created hashtags — #juul, #juulvapor, #switchtojuul, #vaporized — that the influencers blasted out to their followings, often featuring images of young people Juuling, or doing tricks or jokes with their device.”
The company shut down its social media accounts last year, but the damage was done. The hashtags are still updated daily.
This sort of bait-and-switch advertising extends beyond Juul’s young American audience and their marketing efforts.
Take for example, an Indian company that recruited Pierce Brosnan for what he believed was a commercial for a breath freshener line. Instead, it was a type of tobacco product called pan bahar (it is similar to chewing tobacco). The star said that he wasn’t aware of the nature of the product, that the company didn’t disclose its harmful effects, saying that he wouldn’t have chosen to endorse it otherwise, as he has lost family members to cancer.
Not wanting to endorse tobacco product, of course, is a commendable stance for Brosnan. But where are the social media influencers that continue to take money from Juul to target teens? Where is their rejection? They could very easily take a cue from Brosnan and say they were unaware, but instead, continue to force feed hashtags down unsuspecting childrens’ figurative throats.
Juul can call themselves an alternative to smoking all they want, but if even our politicians can see through the B.S., Juul has a real problem.