A House Oversight and Reform committee report published last week found that Juul Labs Inc., the e-cigarette company that creates the nicotine vaporizer, Juul, went to great lengths to advertise to children and teenagers. In fact, it was revealed that the company spent more than $200,000 to recruit influencers and online personalities on platforms like Instagram. The controversy here is not that Juul was marketing — it’s that the company may have been knowingly attempting to advertise to teenagers and underage kids. It seems like the work paid off: some three million youths use e-cigarettes today. In fact, from 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette use skyrocketed 78 percent among high school students. Juul, Inc. was founded in 2017.
The report also found that the Juul Labs Inc. helped set up a summer camp in Baltimore for children to the tune of $134,000. Another $89,000 went to support a youth activities program organized by local police, and another $10,000 for access to schools in the area. The actual point of these programs? To survey kids and get information about them. A committee testimony from a 17-year-old boy also uncovered that Juul representatives came to an unnamed high school in New York City and told students with no teachers present that Juuls were a “totally safe” product. While Juul executives claim that their support of the youth programs was to keep kids off tobacco, the evidence suggests that Juul was, indeed, marketing to kids.
Not that that should be surprising, says Dr. Louis Kyriakoudes, a Director of the Albert Gore Research Center and professor at Middle Tennessee State University who studies the history of the cigarette and tobacco industry.
“There’s a very famous tobacco document written by executives at R.J. Reynolds, the manufacturers of Newport in the 1970’s. They wrote: ‘The basis of our business has always been the high school student.’ That is true,” says Kyriakoudes. “The tobacco business has always been about nicotine delivery. The cigarette manufacturers knew this and talked about it openly.”
Indeed, selling cigarettes to the young is part and parcel of big tobacco’s influence and why they’ve managed to stay in business for so long. Addiction sells. Big tobacco knows addiction sells. And the way that they’ve managed, historically, to get around regulations and medical reports is through “innovation.”
“Whenever there’s a change in the technology of nicotine delivery, manufacturers are already three steps ahead of regulators in getting their product established. There is historical precedent for that. The original modern cigarette was the Camel cigarette, introduced in 1913,” says Kyriakoudes.
The tobacco in Camel cigarettes, for instance, was formulated to be far more easily smokeable than previous tobacco. It was also heavily advertised, per Kyriakoudes, in sheer volume that was unprecedented for a consumer product by that time. That marketing and innovation also led to the first sustained increase in the number of smokers ever.
Over many decades, tobacco leaned on this marketing tactic. In the 50’s, the new technology was filtered cigarettes, in the 60’s, low-tar and light cigarettes took hold. The ultra-lights of the 1970’s and 80’s were followed by mentholated cigarettes. People smoked them because they were, per advertising, “healthier” options to the cigarette.
“Even though those technologies didn’t actually protect people’s health, they were advertised and marketed that way,” says Kyriakoudes. “Because of that, the tobacco industry was able to sustain its business at a time when all of the science was linking their products to lung cancer, heart disease, and other deadly conditions.”
Vapes like Juul and Vuze, another leading non-combustible nicotine delivery system, are a part of a long history of ‘healthy’ alternatives to cigarettes.
“Juul is reported to be safer. That’s a dubious concept. Nicotine is not good for you. It still causes addiction, which robs people of the ability to use or not use the product, because they are addicted,” says Kyriakoudes.
And Juul, the leading vape in the market, still delivers double the amount of nicotine of their competitors. Nicotine delivery systems, like the ‘ultra-light’ cigarette, were also supposed to offer consumers a ‘safer’ option to cigarettes than other cigarettes at the time. Vapes being marketed as ‘safe’ alternatives to consumers is what keeps people buying them. But the people buying them are kids.
As Kyriakoudes noted above, the basis of the tobacco business has always been teenagers. The math of addiction backs it up: less than five percent of smokers pick up the habit after turning 25. 9 in 10 smokers tried their first cigarette by the time they turned 18. The tobacco industry knows this. It’s why Juul allegedly poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into marketing and surveying kids and talking to teenagers about the ‘safety’ of the product. It’s why you see Juul at point of purchase in bodegas, convenience stores, and gas stations. It’s why they had such flavors as Mango and Fruit Punch. And ‘Point of purchase’ advertising — like the candy stand at the Target — is a sly way to get smokers or would-be nicotine consumers to buy the product. Research shows that point-of-purchase advertising is particularly influential on teenagers and adolescents, big tobacco’s target audience.
Juuls are also regularly seen in the hands of social media influencers. This tactic also has a historical precedent. In the 1920’s, the American Tobacco Company hired a PR guy named Edward Bernays. He set up a viral marketing stunt during a popular Easter Day parade where he paid celebrities and socialite women to smoke cigarettes, which was traditionally a male past time. The media buzzed, the moment went “viral,” and the public conversation around cigarettes ballooned. Cool people smoked. Why shouldn’t other people smoke?
“Juul is, in their use of Instagram and other social media, falling right into those same strategies, using new technologies. But it’s basically the same idea,” Kyriakoudes says.
And what big tobacco perfected in advertising to kids, other companies took note of. “The tobacco industry is the innovator [of these marketing tactics.] The adopter of those innovations would be the fast food industry,” says Kyriakoudes. “Cigarette manufacturers used cartoon mascots long before McDonald’s and Burger King ever employed theirs. They both have a strong adolescent component to their marketing,” he says.
Even if Juul Labs Inc. denies the claims that they intentionally targeted kids, the proof is in the playbook. They may not be using mascots or overtly advertising the health of their product but they’re standing on the shoulders of the cigarette executives that came before them and selling addiction as a cool accessory. The only thing that’s really changed is the method of delivery.