Popular e-cigarette maker Juul intentionally and egregiously tailored its marketing to appeal to underage youth, according to a lawsuit filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey on February 12.
The company’s early marketing in 2015 and 2016 purposefully used young, “cool” models in its launch campaign, recruited teen “influencers” on social media, and bought banner and video advertisements on numerous websites aimed at teens and children, including Cartoon Network’s cartoonnetwork.com and Nickelodeon’s sites Nick.com and NickJr.com. Juul even went so far as to give advice to underage consumers over email on how to get around age restrictions to make online purchases of the company’s e-cigarettes.
The lawsuit lands as public health officials across the nation are still grappling with an explosion in e-cigarette use by youth, which the Food and Drug Administration has referred to as an “epidemic.” Between 2011 and 2019, recent use of e-cigarettes by middle schoolers increased from 0.6 percent to 10.5 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For high schoolers, use increased from 1.5 percent to 27.5 percent in that timeframe. That means that by 2019, more than 1 in every 4 high school students said they had used e-cigarettes within the last 30-days from the time of the survey.
Overall, 5.4 million middle and high school students reported use of e-cigarettes in 2019, a leap up from 3.6 million in 2018, according to the CDC.
While there were several e-cigarette makers with questionable appeal to youth, Juul has drawn the fiercest criticism—and several other state lawsuits. Juul is by far the leading brand of e-cigarettes in the US and clearly has concerning marketing practices and flavorings that appeal to kids. As youth uptake of e-cigarettes soared between 2017 and 2018, Juul’s dollar sales rose a whopping 783%, reaching $942.6 million, according to a Wells Fargo analysis of Nielsen data, which was reported by CNBC at the time.
The FDA in particular has gone after Juul, including sending numerous warnings and raiding the company’s San Francisco headquarters in 2018. Last fall, the agency sent another warning letter to Juul over making unproven safety claims—in some cases directly to kids, while they were in school, with no teachers present and no parental consent.
While the new investigation and lawsuit by Massachusetts Attorney General Healey doesn’t paint an entirely new picture of Juul’s marketing activity, it does provide new details of its methods.
“JUUL is responsible for the millions of young people nationwide who are addicted to e-cigarettes, reversing decades of progress in combatting underage tobacco and nicotine use,” Healey said in a statement. “Our lawsuit sheds new light on the company’s intent to target young people, and we are going to make them pay for the public health crisis they caused in Massachusetts.”
Out with the old, in with the new
For one thing, the investigation uncovered that when Juul was gearing up to release its e-cigarette products, it initially worked with a Calgary-based advertising agency called Cult Collective Ltd. The company pitched an initial marketing strategy for Juul that would explicitly appeal to older people. Cult recommended posturing Juul as a “hero” and “technology company, not a tobacco company” that would offer a superior alternative to cigarettes.
Cult recommended a “retro” themed advertisement campaign that juxtaposed 1980s items like a boom box, old mobile phone, and joy stick with a sleek, modern Juul e-cigarette.
“These images featured products that were readily recognizable by older consumers—products that teenagers today might only recognize from old movies,” the lawsuit points out.
But Juul rejected the idea, according to the suit. Juul instead developed a new marketing strategy to “win with the cool crowd in critical markets.” It went with young, fashionable models, frequently in sexually provocative context, the lawsuit alleges.
Juul also bought advertisements on teen and kid-oriented websites. In addition to Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network sites, it purchased ads on sites including allfreekidscrafts.com, hellokids.com, and kidsgameheroes.com. Juul targeted sites used by young girls, including dailydressupgames.com, didigames.com, forhergames.com, games2girls.com, girlgames.com, and girlsgogames.com.
Juul also targeted math and social studies sites used by middle and high school students, including coolmath-games.com, basic-mathematics.com, coolmath.com, math-aids.com, mathplayground.com, mathway.com, onlinemathlearning.com, and purplemath.com, and socialstudiesforkids.com.
Lastly, Juul bought ads on sites aimed at teenagers and college-bound high schoolers, including teen.com, seventeen.com, justjaredjr.com, and hireteen.com, as well as collegeconfidential.com, collegeview.com., collegehumor.com, collegeprepster.com, and survivingcollege.com.
Juul also tried to rope in celebrities that appealed to teens, including Twilight stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence, and former child actor and musician Miley Cyrus.
The lawsuit also alleges that Juul was, at best, lax about age verification for online purchases and let online consumers create accounts with domain names associated with high schools.
According to the lawsuit:
JUUL customer service representatives even provided consumers with advice on how to evade minimum legal sales restriction requirements by shipping JUUL Products to another person with an address in a town with a lower minimum legal sales age. In an email from firstname.lastname@example.org dated February 21, 2018, “Don” from the “JUUL Care Team” told a consumer whose order had been cancelled due to an age verification failure, “The legal age to purchase nicotine products in Milton, MA is 21 years old and above. If you have friends or relatives in Quincy, MA, you may use their address as a shipping address for your order.
In an emailed statement to Ars, Juul spokesperson Austin Finan said that the company has “not yet reviewed the complaint.”
He went on to say that Juul remains “focused on resetting the vapor category in the US and earning the trust of society.” He noted that amid the backlash, Juul has “stopped the sale of flavored pods other than Tobacco and Menthol in November; halted our television, print, and digital product advertising; implemented a $1 billion restructuring plan; refrained from lobbying the Administration on its draft flavor guidance and support the final policy.”
He added: “Our customer base is the world’s 1 billion adult smokers, and we do not intend to attract underage users.”