Did you know JUUL implemented a vaping prevention program targeted for use in schools? JUUL is the rapid-rise vaping company that makes e-cigarettes that look like USB units, and vaping liquids with high concentrations of nicotine. It has suffered heavy criticism for its appeal to underage youth and is being investigated by the FDA for targeting underage users in its advertising.
The vaping prevention program, which was created at the start of JUUL’s commercial launch in 2015, has also faced criticism, most recently in an article in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
According to Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a pediatrics professor at Stanford University and a senior author of the analysis in the Journal of Adolescent Health pointed out several weaknesses in JUUL’s program. According to her analysis and public interviews, the JUUL program is missing common elements essential to effective prevention programs:
- The program did not address how to deconstruct advertisements for misleading and directly targeted messaging,
- Did not address flavorings that appeal to younger users,
- Skirted over their own brand in discussions, i.e., referred to e-cigarettes but did not “say” JUUL is an e-cigarette, and
- Avoided addressing why JUUL is not for kids, including a discussion of the product’s high nicotine content.
Due to these missing talking points, Halpert-Felsher indicated the JUUL program was not likely to have the desired effect—that is, to educate minors and prevent underage vaping. There have also been concerns about the program from educators across the country—many of which stem from a concern for authenticity.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey was quoted to say letting a major e-cigarette manufacturer into the schools…is “little like letting the fox into the henhouse.” This seems especially true if they are not including critical information as Halpert-Felsher suggests. If JUUL really wanted to prevent students from using e-cigarettes, including JUUL, shouldn’t they be completely transparent about their product, their advertising, and why kids should not use it?
Other states have joined Healey in opposition to the JUUL school programs. Colorado educators pushed back on the program back in January 2018.
A New York Times article shared emails and letters received by educators from operatives at JUUL; letters they considered suspicious and deceptive, and which mirrored historical tactics of the big tobacco companies.
One letter included the following text and an offer to conduct a 3-hour teen “mindfulness” brain training program.
“I read about the challenges you’re having with JUUL…. what we’ve found from focus groups with teenage JUUL users is that young people don’t understand the dangers of nicotine addiction,” the letter read. “They sometimes feel ‘pushed’ by friends to use e-cigarettes. We also found that they don’t have operative ways to deal with stress and the emotional ups and downs of their lives right now.”
Concerns with this outreach seem obvious from an educator’s perspective: Why is a vape company trying to gain access to our kids? Why is a vape company doing focus groups with teenagers about their products—products those teenagers are not legally allowed to use? Moreover, if JUUL cares so much about addiction, why manufacture a product so high in nicotine content? A product that could be instrumental in creating an addiction? One educator called the offer “preposterous.”
JUUL apparently also requires that all the data from surveys and responses from the program attendees be provided to JUUL. This information could be used to create better products, and very possibly to create even more effective campaigns to get people (including kids) to use JUUL.
The New York Times article also quotes a former member of JUUL revealing the company knew their product marketing appealed to kids back in 2015. Apparently, they did very little about it until the end of 2016 when FDA oversight was instituted and when investigations and public outcry made it prudent.
This year, Healey, the Massachusetts AG, opened an investigation into JUUL earlier this year for violation of consumer protection and e-cigarette laws of the State of Massachusetts related to JUUL’s advertising and marketing programs that directly reach underage users.
The FDA also launched an investigation into JUUL for advertising to minors and in 2018 raided their corporate offices with subpoenas for marketing documents and supporting material.
James Monsees, one of JUUL’s founders was quoted in the NYT article saying, “Yes, I want to make money. I’m on the board with a fiduciary duty that obligates me to make money.” This was followed by, “The best investor return in the long term comes [not from teens] but from more adults turning away from combustible cigarettes.”
Interestingly, there is a distinct lack of supportable evidence that e-cigarettes help adults or teens to quit smoking combustible cigarettes. And emerging evidence that e-cigarettes are a teen gateway to traditional tobacco.
As such, Monsees add-on statement seems to speak more to his desire to make money. JUUL appears to have a goal to replace addictive, nicotine combustible cigarettes with addictive nicotine e-cigarettes—and that’s just a switch in delivery systems.
While this may be a change acceptable to adults, it may also deliver a serious set-back to years of progress in smoking cessation and nicotine addiction prevention.