Did Juul use candy flavors and social media to market toward youth?
Savanna, a 21-year-old communications major wearing Adidas sneakers and black leggings, leaves class every twenty minutes to hit her vape in the bathroom. She's not the only one. Other girls have clouded up the bathroom with plumes of vape smoke like a scene out of “Pretty in Pink." But this time, the smoke is candy flavored and dissipates quickly in the air.
Vaping and e-cigarettes first hit shelves in 2003 as a means for adult smokers to ween themselves off the cancer sticks of old. Not only was vaping healthier than cigarettes, but the flavors were delicious and the overall liquid vape smoke was less accosting to society. It was a win for the Food and Drug Administration. That is until recently when the FDA backtracked on their original triumphs by announcing high schoolers, and even middle schoolers, were enjoying the flavored and sugary vape liquids in what the FDA has called an epidemic. With names like Creme Brulee and Banana Split, how can you not salivate slightly?
One vape company in particular, Juul, is the poster child for the FDA as the governmental organization attempts to put the kibosh on a billion dollar industry growing at a lights-out pace. Juul's marketing practices, social media posts and flavors are at the center of an investigation into whether or not Juul truly targeted a demographic of minors in its quest to control more than half the market.
Is this the beginning of a big takedown of a giant industry? Will Juul suffer the same fate as Big Tobacco — hit with fines and lawsuits and disallowed from advertising where youngsters can see? Tobacco, after all, is banned from ads on Facebook and Twitter. Is Juul next?
A vape, also known as an e-cigarette, is a battery operated device that heats up either liquid tobacco or nicotine salts, and then turns it into a smokeless vapor.
Juul is the e-cigarette that has completely revolutionized the vaping industry with its discreet design that looks like a USB flash drive and fits perfectly in the palm of a closed hand. Worth more than $15 billion, the company controls over 70 percent of the market. They’re so popular “juuling” has basically become its own verb.
When they first came on the market, Dane Stauder, manager at The Fitter in Boulder, Colo., recalls that the Juul would instantly run out and they couldn’t keep up with the demand. “It was driven by the school year. That’s the time when we would get calls nonstop, all day, asking about Juul and if we had it in stock,” says Stauder. “Now they’re so abundant we don’t have any stocking issues.” He attributes some of their popularity to its convenience and size. But also didn’t hesitate to say, “For the nicotine pens, it’s all about the flavors.”
Flavors and the FDA
On Sept. 12, the FDA threatened to ban flavored e-juices if the companies cannot prove they have a plan to prevent young people from vaping.
Juul argues they didn’t try to market their product toward youth, but have been specifically criticized for their use of candy flavored e-juices that are appealing to teens. The FDA believes it’s the flavors that initially drew teens to vaping. In an attempt to redeem their innocence, Juul changed the names of their flavors of creme brulee to creme and cool cucumber to just cucumber.
“It’s not about the flavor pods. It’s just smoking. They think its cool,” says Brian Marolda, a regular vape user and employee at The Fitter in Boulder, Colo. The smoke shop is filled with rainbow hippy art and college kids in graphic t-shirts.
Marketing to Youth
On Sept. 28, the FDA did a surprise inspection of the Juul headquarters and seized over 1,000 documents containing information on their marketing strategies in an attempt to understand their increasing popularity among minors.
Matt David, Juul Lab’s Chief Communications Officer, said in a statement they attribute their product’s popularity to conversations between adult smokers. But according to a study on how Juul took over the e-cigarette market, their social media campaigns were highly correlated with their sales.
They did something unprecedented to gain popularity- threw a big party and posted all over Instagram. To launch their product in 2015, they encouraged guests to post photos of them hitting the Juul at a giant party full of young people. It was a huge success.
And while they started the campaign on Instagram, the consumers certainly finished the job. Platforms like Twitter and Instagram allowed companies to essentially rely on young people to continue advertising for them without being held responsible anymore. Juuling has become an internet sensation with memes and videos of kids hitting three or four Juuls at once. #Juul has over 240,000 posts on Instagram where college kids post smoke tricks or advertisements of Juul related products like phone cases that hold your Juul and portable chargers.
If Instagram didn’t do enough advertising for them, Harvard University and other colleges did. Some e-cigarette companies offered college scholarships to students who wrote about how vapes can be a better alternative to tobacco. Their products were then featured on university websites. One company, called High Class Vape Co, offered $4,000 with technically no age requirement. You only had to be a high school senior to receive the scholarship.
And if the evidence couldn't get any more lopsided against Juul, multiple news outlets reported the vape company offered up to $20,000 in funding to implement a vaping prevention program for students at Sequoia Union School District in California, Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, and the Arlington Youth Health and Safety Coalition in Massachusetts. All of the schools declined the offer.
This isn’t the first time a company has used pop culture to promote nicotine and profit off of young people’s addictions. In the 70s and 80s when the effects were still not fully understood, cigarettes were seen in the mouths of the most glamorous movie stars. Big Tobacco used the entertainment industry and advertisements of macho men in cowboy hats to convince the young people of their time to smoke.
And now, flash forward to 40 years later, a new company has familiar advertisements of attractive young people with a sleek vaping device in their hand called the Juul. Like other vapes, it claims it counteracts the influence of Big Tobacco and helps adults quit smoking cigarettes.
Is history repeating itself?
Not only through its design, Juul attracts users with promises of nicotine without the harsh chemicals or lingering smell. But what they don’t let you know is just how much nicotine one Juul pod has compared to a cigarette. One e-liquid pod contains approximately 40 mg of nicotine, according to the Juul’s website. That’s twice the 20 mg of nicotine in one pack of cigarettes, and people are often smoking one Juul pod per day.
Vapes have been shown to be a safer alternative to cigarettes because they have less harsh chemicals.
Because e-cigarettes are relatively new, the long term health effects are still not fully understood. What we do know is that they’re not completely safe and some vapes still produce chemicals like formaldehyde. The higher the voltage e-cigarette, the higher amount of formaldehyde.
Nicotine is the most addictive legal substance. Even though people may be consuming less harsh chemicals, they are consuming far more nicotine because of its high content in vapes. For previously non smokers, vapes are creating a new generation of nicotine addiction and experts believe it may lead them to smoking conventional cigarettes.
Michael Dunbar, a behavioral scientist at RAND corporation did a study on the use of cigarettes and e-cigarettes among youth. The study found a trend in what he describes as “dual use prevalence” meaning the youth he surveyed ended up smoking both cigarettes and e-cigarettes. “This is most likely driven by factors related to nicotine dependence,” he says. “Vaping may help to normalize the act of smoking for youth that may be unfamiliar with it.”
Smoking a cigarette is like a ritual process. It takes five minutes just to smoke a cigarette, and another five minutes to try and spray enough perfume to mask the smell. But with vapes, it’s instant. Anyone can hit it anywhere, and if you didn’t see the giant cloud of smoke, you basically have no idea who is vaping at any given time. That’s why bathrooms have become the hot spot for juuling among high schoolers and why parents and educators have no control over the vaping epidemic.
While some vapes have helped adults quit smoking cigarettes, Juul is not one of them. The Juul website describes its product as the “satisfying alternative to cigarettes” but in that attempt, they created a product so satisfying it is attracting all the wrong people. It’s no longer the hipsters smoking cigs on the corner of the street. The Juul’s gone mainstream and that stemmed from Juul’s original social media campaigns. If they truly wanted to make a product for adults, they wouldn’t have used Instagram, every 16 year-old’s favorite social network, to market something that makes puffs of candy flavored vapor.
The FDA released their most recent statement Oct. 31, which gave information into the five major e-cigarette companies’ proposals of how they plan to keep their products out of the hands of minors. Some solutions that were addressed were to temporarily take flavored e-juices off the market and to raise the age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21.
The timeline for if these solutions will actually happen is still unclear. For now, the FDA says they will continue to monitor these companies in order to reverse the youth vaping epidemic. Juul took down all the photos of their original launching party and now only posts videos of adults who have switched from cigarettes to Juul. Whether or not that stops the growing social media presence of Juul and the puffs of smoke coming from bathroom stalls however, is still up for debate.