The Food and Drug Administration raided the offices of Juul Labs this week, seizing over 1,000 documents about how it sells and markets its products. Juul, the largest e-cigarette company in the US, has been under fire by government regulators, advocacy groups, and health professionals who argue the organization deliberately markets its products to teens.
In a statement, the FDA explained:
“The new and highly disturbing data we have on youth use demonstrates plainly that e-cigarettes are creating an epidemic of regular nicotine use among teens. It is vital that we take action to understand and address the particular appeal of, and ease of access to, these products among kids.”
Jason Breed, President of Digital Futures Initiative, agrees: “When it comes to substance use in schools, Juul'ing (the verb now used for vaping and e-cigarette use) is by far the largest issue we see nationwide. Our experience says that Juul'ing will be the primary gateway to other drug use.”
While several e-cigarette companies package their devices in ways that can easily be mistaken for popular children's products, Juul is best known for making an e-cigarette that looks like a USB stick. The device even charges from a standard USB port. Such products are difficult for parents and educators to spot— which is precisely the point.
"The way these products are able to be used without any sort of detection from adults is very much consistent with something that would appeal to a kid," says Erika Sward, assistant vice president of national advocacy for the American Lung Association.
But while teens outmaneuver their parents and teachers, they are becoming pawns of the e-cigarette industry.
"The marketing has entered into the kids," notes Dr. Lester Hartman of Westwood Mansfield Pediatrics.
Here's how teens are falling for it.
How E-Cigarette Companies Capture Teens
E-cigarette marketers know how to trick teens into becoming lifelong addicts, and the levers are hidden in plain sight.
1. It's the Wild West… until 2022
For some unfathomable reason, the FDA has given e-cigarette companies whose products were in the market before 2016 until 2022 to comply with federal regulations. That's six years to get as many kids hooked as possible before these companies are forced to rein in their practices. In marketing, it's called increasing market share. But e-cigarettes have a distinct advantage compared to other products because they are physically addictive.
Studies show the brain forms addictions more rapidly during adolescence than at other times in a person's life. If you're the head of marketing for Juul or any of the other e-cig companies, your goal is clear: get as many kids as possible to try vaping. Once they're hooked on the nicotine, they'll become lifelong customers even after the rules come into effect in 2022. It's a twisted perversion of Amazon.com's original mantra to "get big fast", but in this case, it's "get big before the law kicks in."
2. Many teens don't know e-cigs contain nicotine— and that's just how the marketers want it
In April, BMJ's Tobacco Control published a study showing that the majority of teens didn't know e-cigarettes contain nicotine.
Why would they? Companies like Juul dazzle prospective users with a wide array of flavors, like mango, mint, peanut butter, fruit, lollipop, and many, many more. Why the focus on flavors? Because it creates a desire to experiment with new "e-juice packs" while also masking the flavor of nicotine.
And this is no ordinary nicotine. While most e-cigarettes deliver a concentration of 6-30 milligrams per milliliter, Juul pods contain a whopping 59 milligrams per milliliter— so much nicotine that it can't be sold in Europe, where the maximum amount of nicotine is limited to 20 milligrams.
But it gets worse. Companies like Juul have figured out how to distill nicotine from leaf tobacco into nicotine salts, which deliver a strong nicotine hit without several of the unpleasant side effects traditional smokers experience in the chest and lungs.
Some e-cig companies even declare their products are a safe alternative to traditional cigarettes— something they would be unable to do if the FDA forced them to adhere to federal safety guidelines. Apart from the dangers of nicotine, e-cigarettes contain about 5 to 15 times as much formaldehyde as traditional cigarettes— and formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.
“The bottom line is, there are toxins and some are more than in regular cigarettes," observes James F. Pankow, professor of chemistry and engineering at Portland State University.
The picture that's emerging so far is:
-Get in the land-grab and capture as many teens as possible before 2022
-Fool them with catchy flavors and hide the fact you're serving up highly-addictive toxins
-Get them hooked quick by serving up a double-dose they won't notice until it's too late
3. Make it cool
The final component needed to complete this web is to make vaping cool. Media is an essential part of how e-cigarette companies capture teens.
The Centers for Disease Control published a report last year showing that the number of people shown smoking tobacco products in top-grossing films increased 80 percent from 2015-2016. This included traditional tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, as well as e-cigarettes.
This matters because the Surgeon General found a causal relationship between depictions of smoking in the movies and the likelihood that young people will start smoking:
The more frequently youths see smoking on screen, the more likely they are to start smoking; youths who are heavily exposed to onscreen smoking imagery are approximately two to three times more likely to begin smoking than are youths who are less exposed.
One film studio that deserves special credit here is Disney, which announced in 2015 it would ban the depiction of smoking in all Disney films moving forward, including in its wildly-popular Marvel and Star Wars franchises.
Apart from film, e-cigarette companies have been quick to recognize the enormous power of social media in attracting teens to vaping. Hundreds of Instagram albums exist of celebrities who vape. Social media personalities promote vaping to their followers. And user groups on Reddit, Facebook, and other platforms exist where members can compare e-cigarette flavors and brands. The addictive properties of social media are harnessed and deployed by e-cigarette executives to enslave a generation of teens to a physical addiction of nicotine.
"If you were to go to social media, there are constantly videos and pictures of high schoolers doing 'vape tricks,'" recalled Sean Christiansen, a 14-year old high school student who testified before the Maryland state senate. "These are designed to increase the number of high schoolers who wish to use nicotine/tobacco products, and many kids who had no interest in drugs prior to high school have become smokers."
Social media is an essential part of the web e-cigarette makers draw around teens, preying upon their desire to emulate popular figures and belong to a community of like-minded people.
Fresh signs of hope can be seen on the horizon. Last month, the FDA declared vaping to be an "epidemic" among US teens. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb minced few words:
"We didn’t predict what I now believe is an epidemic of e-cigarette use among teenagers....
I use the word epidemic with great care. E-cigs have become an almost ubiquitous‒ and dangerous ‒ trend among teens. The disturbing and accelerating trajectory of use we’re seeing in youth, and the resulting path to addiction, must end. It’s simply not tolerable. I’ll be clear. The FDA won’t tolerate a whole generation of young people becoming addicted to nicotine as a tradeoff for enabling adults to have unfettered access to these same products."
Three weeks later, the FDA raided the offices of Juul searching for documents about whether it deliberately markets its addictive products to teens.
It's too soon to say whether the FDA will reconsider its compliance deadline of 2022, but parents, educators, and public health advocates shouldn't wait. Show teens how e-cigarette companies manipulate them through deceptive advertising, chemical formulas designed to addict them, and weaponized social media deployed draw them in. Armed with this critical information, teens can choose to rebel against a system built from the ground up to make them a slave.
Digital Futures Initiative provides training programs for instructors and parents on how to educate kids on issues that can arise from irresponsible internet use, including harassment, cyberbullying, loss of emotional intelligence, substance use, distracted driving and more.
For more information, visit dfinow.org