- An e-cigarette called the Juul is surging in popularity among teens.
- Several public-health experts and researchers allege that Juul Labs, the $US15 billion startup behind the device, deliberately targeted youth in its marketing .
- Juul maintains that its products are for adults, but a former employee told Business Insider that the company’s previous ads featured models who were “too close to a sensitive demographic.”
Bad habits are tough to break.
The Juul, an e-cigarette that delivers a powerful nicotine hit equal to the amount in a pack of cigarettes, may be one of the toughest.
Adult customers say they find the high nicotine content as satisfying as conventional cigarettes, but the device also has a growing number of teen fans, whose developing brains are uniquely vulnerable to addiction.
The Juul’s surging popularity among high schoolers has led public-health advocates and researchers to issue alarming warnings. Young people who vape may be as many as seven times more likely to smoke regular cigarettes than teens who never try an e-cig, according to several peer-reviewed studies.
Ana Rule, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and an author of a study on e-cigs and teens, told Business Insider that the makers of new e-cigarette devices “fail to address the increased risk to this huge market they are creating among teenagers and young adults that never have smoked, and would have never even considered smoking.”
Juul says its device was designed to help adult smokers transition to a healthier but equally satisfying product and claims that its advertising materials never targeted teens. On Wednesday, its chief product officer and co-founder, James Monsees, is speaking at Disrupt SF, one of the world’s largest tech startup events in the world.
“This company is here to improve the lives of smokers,” Ashley Gould, Juul’s chief administrative officer, told Business Insider.
But public-health experts from several universities, representatives from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and the California Department of Health all allege that Juul Labs, the $US15 billion startup behind the Juul, deliberately marketed its products to youth.
To launch the Juul in 2015, the company decided not to pursue a conventional marketing campaign and instead threw “a really great party,” according to one former employee who spoke to Business Insider on the condition of anonymity.
At the party, guests were encouraged to take photos and post them on social media accounts using the hashtag #LightsCameraVapor. Juul also posted images from the party on its social media accounts, including a tweet on June 4, 2015 that features a photo of five young women posing with Juuls on a white background.
The former employee told Business Insider that “the initial person we had in mind was youngish, late 20s, early 30s, an influencer, someone who’s affluent, an early adopter.”
But they added, “it’s probably too close to a sensitive demographic to be using those images anymore.”
Juul told the New York Times that the company now requires models in its social marketing campaigns to be over age 35.
Between 2015 and 2017, Juul put up a series of ads for its devices that featured young men and women on YouTube and on billboards. One image showed a woman on a yellow background that a second former employee, who also did not want their name published, said “could have been 18.” That would be illegal in California, the state in which Juul’s headquarters are located, where the legal age to use cigarettes and e-cigs is 21. Federal law mandates people be at least 18 to buy tobacco products.
A former senior manager with Juul told the New York Times anonymously that he and other company employees “were well aware” their devices could appeal to teens.
Juul’s Instagram and Twitter campaigns prior to 2017 featured hashtags like #LightsCameraVapor and were also replete with images of young people – particularly young women – using Juuls.
Up until at least August of 2016, Juul (which was then called Pax Labs) featured images on its website that included young models, such as an image of a young blonde woman wearing a distressed denim jacket and black fingernail polish.
‘Could we have done things differently in the past? Yes’
There’s no question about the Juul’s popularity among teens.
Instagram and YouTube are full of videos of teens vaping,or “Juuling,” in class and in front of teachers. A string of high schools along the East Coast has cited “Juuling” in bathroom stalls as a widespread problem, and dozens of teachers have reported confiscating Juul devices disguised as Sharpies and other classroom items.
“I don’t go anywhere where there isn’t a parent in the audience who isn’t concerned about the Juul,” Matthew Myers, the president of the nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, told Business Insider. “I’ve never seen a phenomenon like this before.”
Myers and other researchers allege that Juul’s public marketing campaigns have made the claim that they never marketed to teens difficult to believe.
Myers also said that Juul’s decision to put the bulk of its ads on social media (rather than magazines, billboards, or TV) meant that adults and federal regulators were less likely to see the ads and flag potential issues.
“Using social media, which is not visible to the average adult, [Juul] operated under the radar screen for a very long time,” Myers said.
Nicholas Chadi, a clinical pediatrics fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital spoke about the Juul at the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s annual conference in April.
“Of course they’re not marketed to young people,” Chadi said sarcastically, adding the that when products are made with appealing designs and sleek packaging, teens are drawn to them.
Rule, the Johns Hopkins researcher, agreed.
“I think that is one of the marketing strategies, especially with the Juul and other pods. They look very ‘cool’ and ‘sleek,’ and that’s not a coincidence,” she said.
Gould told Business Insider that Juul did have a previous advertising campaign, before she joined the company, that included imagery that “was not consistent with our brand.”
“We have to take ownership for what was done in the past,” she said. “Our objective is to be open and transparent. Could we have done things different in the past? Yes.”
A startup that’s booming
Behind an ageing brick facade of a warehouse in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighbourhood, Juul Labs is growing exponentially. Its five floors are packed with employees. Staff crowd the halls, spill onto balconies for meetings, and squat on the building’s sweaty top floor.
On Wednesday, Juul co-founder and chief product officer James Monsees will grace the main stage of TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF conference, one of the world’s largest gatherings for tech startups.
“We’re absolutely psyched to have Monsees join us,” TechCrunch editor Jordan Cook wrote in a recent article about the upcoming event.
Juul’s US staff has tripled in the last six months, and the company plans to open offices in 19 more locations across the country, including big cities like Boston and smaller ones like Des Moines. The company is expanding internationally, too: After launching in London in July, Juul intends to expand to three more countries.
The company has the money to do it. After scoring a $US15 billion valuation that put Juul in the ranks of startups like Pinterest, Lyft, and Snap Inc., Juul Labs raised $US650,000 within just two days.
But as Juul has grown, so has the public health backlash against it.
Several state and federal investigations and a handful of consumer lawsuits highlight concerns about the Juul’s health effects and its worrisome popularity among teens. The Massachusetts Attorney General is investigating whether Juul violated state consumer-protection laws by failing to keep minors from buying its products, and the Food and Drug Administration recently cracked down on sales of the Juul to minors. The city of San Francisco even banned flavored tobacco products like the Juul, and public-health researchers and leading philanthropists like Michael Bloomberg have said they hope other cities follow suit.
But in the meantime, the Juul is still hot among teens, and Myers said social media is the reason.
“It wasn’t public-health groups who picked up on it, it was literally teachers and principals, and once they did, people discovered [the devices] were everywhere,” he said. “And then when you went and looked at the social media scene, you understood how this happened.”
As of the time of this story’s publication, Juul’s tweet from its 2015 launch party has not been removed.
“This is really the genie you can’t put back in the bottle,” Myers said. “Once something is the rage like this, the kids are doing it for you.”
If you’re a former or current Juul or Pax employee with a story to share, email this reporter at [email protected]
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