BMJ’s journal, Tobacco Control, just released a study recommending that the FDA do more to control Juul’s e-cigarette advertising in social media. The study included review of over 15000 posts in a three-month period during 2018. Approximately 30% of reviewed posts were promotional, e.g., leading to Juul purchase locations, and over half the posts included “youth” and “youth lifestyle” themes. Because many of these posts were re-posts or user-generated, rather than ads specifically placed by Juul, the company protested that 99% were third-party content over which Juul had no control. However, the intended goal for social media advertising is to “share” and to inspire creation of third-party user-generated content that is also shared. Juul’s public comments weirdly suggest they don’t understand social media advertising. That is quite unlikely.
Juul first came under fire for its youth-focused advertising back in 2016, but has only recently made changes to restrict it. Not until late 2018, long after being called-out by educational and government agencies for targeting youth, did it begin to materially limit its social media accounts and social media messaging.
Juul’s chief administrative officer, Ashley Gould, was quoted last year telling CNN that Juul was “completely surprised by the youth usage of the product.” (Source: CNN.) In response, Dr. Robert Jackler, founder of the Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising, said, “I don’t believe that, not for a minute, because they’re also a very digital, very analytical company,” he added. “They know their market. They know what they’re doing.”
Gould’s obfuscation about underage users doesn’t fool people in the know—and it certainly doesn’t generate trust that Juul will voluntarily follow ethical practices. Juul only instituted its recent changes to restrict youth advertising after FDA scrutiny and bad press.
Juul also advertises its products are for smoking cessation. Last week, in response to San Francisco’s imminent ban on e-cigarette sales, Juul raised concerns that people would resort back to traditional cigarettes—implying this would further negatively impact the health of San Franciscans.
Unfortunately for Juul, the internet remembers everything. In a 2015 Verge interview at the beginning of Juul’s meteoric rise, one of Juul’s R&D engineers made it clear that Juul didn’t care about smoking cessation nor had any concerns about creating an addictive product. The engineer (Atkins) was quoted saying, “We don’t think a lot about addiction here because we’re not trying to design a cessation product at all,” he said, “anything about health is not on our mind.”
Juul’s public “feint and parry” strategy tends to mirror the traditional tobacco industry—a group with a sordid history of youth-focused advertising, concealment, lying to officials, and purposely creating highly addictive products in order to boost sales. It took multiple lawsuits and the Master Settlement Agreement of the nineties for big tobacco to materially comply with government regulations.
Unfortunately, despite all of that history, the tobacco industry’s disregard for consumer protection has spread into the e-cigarette industry. As late as 2017, big tobacco-owned e-cigarette, Blu, launched its “Something Better” advertising campaign. The campaign mocked government-mandated package warnings on traditional cigarettes. The ads included variations of the following text and were designed to look like cigarette warning labels:
“Important: Contains flavor;”
“Important: Vaping blu smells good”
“Important: No ashtrays needed”
The parody on government-mandated safety warnings mocks consumer protection efforts by government agencies—a tactic not surprising coming from a tobacco company. Right now, there is very little regulation over e-cigarettes despite the fact that the FDA was granted oversight in 2016. Like Blu, Juul also has heavy ties to big tobacco. Altria, parent company to Phillip Morris, the maker of Marlboro, is heavily invested in Juul.
If Juul truly intends to address social media advertising, consumer protection, and youth e-cigarette use, it must do more than spew rhetoric through the media. It must take incisive, prophylactic action to reduce exposure of its products to underage users. If history is any indication, that won’t happen without strict FDA regulation.
If you or someone you know has become seriously addicted to nicotine in e-cigarettes, has health problems associated with e-cigarettes, or has been injured by a malfunctioning e-cigarette, you should contact an experienced e-cigarette injury attorney to advise you on the ability to seek compensation for your injuries.