#Nico-Teens: JUUL, Social Media, and the Teen Vaping Epidemic

#Nico-Teens: JUUL, Social Media, and the Teen Vaping Epidemic

  • Case
  • Teaching Notes
Abstract

JUUL was introduced to the market in 2015 with the mission to “improve the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers by eliminating cigarettes.” By 2018, the brand controlled more than 75% of the e-cigarette market and was valued at more than USD 38 billion. On the surface it appears that JUUL is accomplishing its mission. But a closer look reveals that a significant number of their consumers are underage. How did the brand become so popular with teenagers, including those who have never smoked? The answer may, in part, be attributed to their marketing practices, which critics claim are predatory. This case allows students to analyze the marketing and promotional practices of the JUUL brand.

Case
Learning Outcomes

By the end of this case, students will be able to:

  • Evaluate the social media strategies and tactics used to market JUUL.
  • Appreciate the ethical and legal challenges involved in the social media marketing of JUUL.
  • Understand the role influencers in the marketing of JUUL.
Introduction

Adam Bowen and James Monsees sat in their San Francisco office, pondering just how they got to this point. What started as a master’s thesis at Stanford in 2005 was, by 2018, a USD 1 billion business. Bowen and Monsees had an ambitious mission, to “improve the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers by eliminating cigarettes” (“JUUL Mission and Values,” n.d.). Their solution, an e-cigarette, which they called JUUL. Their product quickly took the tobacco world by storm. By the end of 2018, JUUL held 75.8% of the e-cigarette market, with forecasted revenues predicted to triple to USD 3.4 billion in 2019 (Craver, 2019; Zaleski & Huet, 2019). JUUL’s success was the topic of conversation around the board rooms of Big Tobacco. At the close of 2018, one of the largest global tobacco companies, Altria (parent company of Philip Morris USA), for the sum of USD 12.8 billion acquired a 35% stake in the company, valuing JUUL Labs at USD 38 billion. Bowen and Monsees net worth rose to USD 1.4 billion apiece (Chaykowski & Konrad, 2018). Life was good. Why then were so many trying to rain on their parade?

On October 15, 2019, the first wrongful death suit in America’s first vaping crisis was filed in the northern district court of California. Lisa Marie Vail, on behalf of the estate of her late 18-year-old son Daniel David Wakefield, filed a complaint against JUUL Labs. The complaint leveled multiple allegations against the company for “wrongful conduct in marketing, promoting, manufacturing, designing, and selling JUUL;” Ms. Vail contends that these factors contributed to Daniel’s death. More specifically, the complaint stated that JUUL purposely made their product “attractive and palatable” to younger U.S. consumers and “advertised JUUL products to impressionable teens by spending more than $200,000 on online influencers” (Vail v. Juul Labs, Inc, 2019). The complaint details that at approximately the age of 15, Vail’s son was first exposed to JUUL, through “advertising and promotional efforts via many sources, including social media, peer pressure, online sources, and direct emails.” (Vail v. Juul Labs, Inc, 2019). Although this is the first wrongful death suit, it is not the first lawsuit filed against the e-cigarette maker. Across the United States, numerous lawsuits have been filed against JUUL Labs by young adults and parents of teenagers. For example, in early 2019, a 15-year-old girl and her family from Sarasota, Florida, filed a class-action lawsuit against JUUL Labs and Altria Group, alleging they “purposefully tried to get teenagers hooked on the products using deceptive marketing tactics” (Dickson, 2019). The suit asserts that by “mimicking Big Tobacco’s past marketing practices, defendants prey on youth to recruit replacement smokers for financial gain” (Rodriguez, 2019).

Cigarettes and E-cigarettes

Nicotine is a toxic, highly addictive substance. Side effects include increased risk of blood clots, changes in heart rhythm, peptic ulcers, and lung spasms. The developing adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to nicotine addiction (Tobacco Free CA, 2019). Nicotine can be consumed by smoking tobacco, chewing tobacco, snorting snuff, or taking nicotine replacement therapies, such as nicotine gum, lozenges, and patches.

Worldwide, tobacco is responsible for more than 7 million deaths per year (CDC, 2019). In the United States, cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year (1,300 per day). More than 41,000 of these deaths are as a result of secondhand smoke exposure (CDC, 2019). Cigarette consumption typically begins during adolescence, with nearly nine out of every 10 smokers trying their first cigarette by the age of 18 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention & Office on Smoking and Health, 2014). Adding flavors to tobacco can make it more appealing to young consumers. A 2014 study revealed that 73% of high school and 56% of middle school students surveyed had used a flavored tobacco product in the previous 30 days (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention & Office on Smoking and Health, 2014).

E-cigarettes or vapes, as they are commonly referred to, are small battery-powered devices that convert liquid nicotine into a vapor that the user inhales. The product contains three main parts, a chargeable lithium battery, a cartridge that contains the liquid nicotine, and a vaporizing chamber. Whereas the technology behind e-cigarettes is relatively consistent, there is a high degree of variability between brands in the amount of nicotine and the potential for toxic chemicals, including lead, nickel, tin, and copper (Truth Initiative, 2019). The act of consuming an e-cigarette is referred to as vaping.

E-cigarettes have existed since the 1930s, but it was not until 2003 that the first commercially successful e-cigarette was created in China. By 2006, e-cigarettes were being sold throughout Europe and the United States (CASAA, n.d.). Although vapes are often positioned as a tool for weaning smokers off nicotine, the effectiveness of e-cigarettes as a cessation tool is inconclusive (Truth Initiative, 2019).

Whereas traditional cigarettes produce ash and smoke, e-cigarettes are odorless, smokeless, and do not produce ash. E-cigarettes are reportedly less harmful than inhaling tobacco smoke. However, they do contain toxic chemicals associated with smoking traditional tobacco cigarettes, although the types and concentration of toxins vary by brand. Since 2009, the FDA has been reporting that e-cigarettes contain “detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals to which users could be exposed.” (Food and Drug Administration, 2009). Recent evidence suggests that e-cigarettes pose unique health risks, aside from those associated with other forms of tobacco (Truth Initiative, 2019). For example, some dentists have noticed that people who vape experience more cavities and tooth damage. A Sandford School of Medicine study reports that some nicotine liquid products may increase a person’s risk of heart disease; the report suggested that products containing some flavors (e.g., cinnamon and menthol) are potentially more harmful than others (Conger, 2019). Respiratory problems are another common side effect. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of February 18, 2020, there were a reported 2,807 individuals diagnosed with EVALI (E-cigarette or Vaping product use Associated Lung Injury) and 68 have died (CDC, 2020). The EVALI condition causes a pneumonia-like illness with symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, fever, and vomiting (Haglage, 2019).

The United States is perhaps the most lucrative of markets for e-cigarettes and vaping devices (pods and pens).

Data 1. Percent of U.S. Households That Smoked Cigarettes Versus e-Cigarettes in the Past 12 Months

Data 2. Average Annual Consumer Expenditures on Tobacco Products in the United States. Includes Cigarettes, e-Cigarettes, Cigars, Snuff, Loose Smoking Tobacco, Chewing Tobacco, and Smoking Accessories (Such as Cigarette or Cigar Holders, Pipes, Flints, Lighters, and Pipe Cleaners)

In 2019, the United States tobacco industry generated over USD 100 billion in sales. E-cigarettes and other vaping devices only contributed 5% of this, but by 2025, this value is expected to increase to 30% (Herzog, 2019). Whereas vaping is popular with traditional cigarette smokers—50% of adult smokers have reported trying or expressed an interest in trying it—it is also growing in popularity with young underage consumers (Herzog, 2019). In 2018, nearly 21% of U.S. high school students (aged 14–18) and 5% of middle school students (aged 11–13) reported using vaping products in the previous 30 days (Boyles, 2018). In the U.K., a reported 15.4% of 11–18-year-olds have tried vaping (ASH, 2019). On December 20, 2019, the legal age to purchase tobacco and vaping products in the United States was raised from 18 to 21. In the U.K., the legal age is 18. It is yet to be seen what, if any, impact this new age restriction will have. Adolescents report being drawn to these products for several reasons, including curiosity or to give it a try (52.4%), for the appealing flavors (14.4%), and to enable them to join peers (12.7%) (ASH, 2019).

JUUL

In 2004, Adam Bowen and James Monsees were graduate students studying product design at Stanford University. On one occasion, while taking a break from their studies, the two stepped outside for a cigarette. Both were long-term smokers, and as they stood there musing on the lack of alternatives to cigarettes, they were struck with an idea. Cigarettes were an old, unfashionable, and unsophisticated method of consuming nicotine. It was time for an upgrade, and they agreed the future lay with technology. Drawing on their thesis topics, they set out to create a new kind of cigarette. In 2008, the duo launched their start-up Ploom, Inc. In 2012, they released Pax, a vaporizer that offered a discreet way to consume cannabis. In 2015, they sold the rights to Ploom products to one of their investors, Japan Tobacco International, and launched Pax Labs. The same year, Pax Labs launched the JUUL e-cigarette (Kirkham & Berkrot, 2019).

The mission of JUUL is to “Improve the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers by eliminating cigarettes.” Similar to other vaping pod products, the JUUL device, the size of a USB drive, heats a cartridge that contains oils to create a vapor. A single cartridge, called a pod, contains approximately the same amount of nicotine as a packet of cigarettes (200 cigarette puffs). Pods were sold in a variety of flavors (watermelon, tobacco, strawberry milk, mango, cappuccino, mint, strawberry lemonade, grape) and two nicotine strengths (3% and 5%). A JUUL starter kit, which includes the device, USB charging dock, and four JUUL pods retails for approximately USD 50. A pack of four replacement pods costs USD 16. Similar to cigarettes, JUUL is available for purchase from a variety of retail locations, including convenience stores, gas stations, tobacco stores, and grocery stores. It is also available for sale online through tobacco stores, dedicated vaping stores, and the JUUL website. Accessories such as travel cases, decals, and stickers are readily available online, including through the world’s largest e-tailer, Amazon. A 2018 study published in Tobacco Control found that 15–17-year-olds are 16 times more likely to be current JUUL users compared to those aged 25–34. From 2017 to 2018, the number of high-school users grew by 78%. The CDC 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey revealed that JUUL was the usual brand for more than 59% of high school and 54% of middle school e-cigarette users (Truth Initiative, 2019). The question raised by regulators and parents is, how exactly did JUUL become so popular among teens?

JUUL’s success over other tobacco products is attributed to a number of factors. The product is relatively inexpensive (approximately USD 50 for a starter kit and USD 16 for a pack of four pods). The device is trendy in design and small enough to hide in the user’s palm, which allows more discrete usage. When the product was first introduced it was available in a selection of youth-friendly flavors. A 2019 study revealed the two most popular among eighth, tenth, and twelfth grade students were mango and mint (Leventhal et al., 2019). Another appealing feature is that JUUL does not smell like traditional cigarettes (Capritto, 2019). Perhaps the biggest and most controversial reason offered for JUUL’s success with adolescents is its marketing practices. Marketing practices that many public health experts and special interest groups claim specifically target underage consumers (Nedelman et al., 2018).

JUUL Marketing

JUUL Labs adamantly denied any wrongdoing in the manner in which they marketed the product. They claim that in their first three years on the market, they had never marketed to underage consumers. However, research conducted by Stanford University’s SRITA (Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising) uncovered evidence that may contradict this statement. SRITA researchers discovered and archived more than 2,500 deleted tweets, 400 Facebook and Instagram posts, and other promotional materials dating back to the June 2015 launch (Chaykowski, 2018). Much of this marketing reportedly appealed to young people. For example, the advertisements contained young models socializing, dancing, and wearing clothing styles that are associated with teenagers and young adults (e.g., crop tops and ripped jeans; Image 1). In 2015, JUUL ran full-page advertisements in Vice Magazine, a product of Vice Media, “the world’s preeminent youth media company and content creation studio.” (Vice, n.d.; Image 2). Advertisements that show young models jumping around appeared on digital billboards in Times Square (Image 3). During the period June and December 2015, JUUL Labs hosted at least 25 sampling events in major cities across the United States. In promotional materials, JUUL Labs stated that these events were not open to those younger than 21 years of age (Nedelman et al., 2018). A number of advertisements appeared on social media (see Figure 1). Launch parties were music and movie-themed with youth orientated bands and D.J.s providing entertainment. At rooftop movie parties, attendees lounged on vibrant décor while watching popular youth-oriented movies such as Cruel Intentions (see Figures 2 and 3) (Chaykowski, 2018). Thousands of free samples were distributed at events such as these until 2016; during this year, the FDA prohibited this practice. After termination of this practice, party attendees were charged USD 1 for product samples. At least one of these events had a photo booth where party attendees could create animated GIFs.

Text on top left of the screenshot reads “COACD INVITES YOU TO \ THE JUUL PRODUCT LAUNCH PARTY / FROM THE MAKERS OF PAX.” A collage with photos of several men and women is beneath the text. Text on the bottom left reads:

MUSIC BY

CHAPMAN / illuminati AMS / May Kwok + Special Guest Performance

THURSDAY JUNE 4TH

A user icon is on the bottom left corner of the screenshot.

Right side of the screenshot is divided into three segments by horizontal lines. First segment has a profile photo of a man turning backwards and the text beside the photo reads “coacd • Follow.” Text below the photo reads:

coacd @travisdeluca would love to see u (Image: An arm emoji, puff of smoke emoji and an exclamation mark emoji)

coacd @kircherabdul in town Wed/thurs.

coacd @mynamesdiana get ur ID ready (Image: Puff of smoke emoji)

juulvapor #JUUL #JUULvapor #(Image: Puff of smoke emoji, two hands emoji) @coacd

petergiangbang Cool!! I’ll be back in time from Nicaragua! Put me on the list :) hope your well!!

coacd @petergiangbang yes sir (Image: Exclamation mark emoji, puff of smoke emoji)

Second segment has a heart icon and a message bubble icon on the left and a bookmark icon on the right. Text below the icons read:

51 likes

JUNE 1, 2015

Text in the third segment reads “Add a comment…”

Figure 1. Launch Party Announcement on Instagram Posted by Casting Agency Coacd
A screenshot shows a post on Instagram about a JUUL product launch party posted by Coacd.

A photo on left side of the screenshot has the text:

CINESPIA PRESENTS

SLUMBER PARTY

MOVIES ALL NIGHT

FEATURING

“CAN’T HARDLY WAIT”

“SCREAM” AT MIDNIGHT

“CRUEL INTENTIONS”

SATURDAY AUGUST IS

HOLLYWOOD FOREVER

Right side of the screenshot is divided into two segments.

First segment has a logo of JUUL and text beside the logo reads “Juul August 11.”

Text in the middle reads:

Hello Los Angeles. We have tickets for you to the sold-out Movies All Night Slumber Party hosted by Cinespia this weekend. All you have to do is:

1) Follow our Twitter (Image: rightward arrow) https://twitter.com/JUULvapor and Instagram (Image: rightward arrow) https://instagram.com/juulvapor/

2) Make a public post tagging #JUULallnight along with our account and our favorites will get a pair of tickets

(Image: Smiling face emoji) – at Hollywood Forever

Text in the second segment reads “Like Comment Share.” A rectangle beneath has the text “2 people like this.” (Image: Thumbs up icon), a user icon, a text box with a prompt “Write a comment…” (Image: Camera icon) and text “Press enter to post.”

Figure 2. JUUL Launch Party Event Promotion, Posted on Facebook by JUUL
A screenshot shows a post on Facebook about a JUUL product launch party posted by JUUL.

A photo on left side of the screenshot shows a television screen on a table with text “Welcome to Cinespia JUUL.” Several chairs and a trash can are around the table. A group of people are on the left side and a few trees are visible in the background.

Right side of the screenshot is divided into two segments.

First segment has a logo of BeCore agency and the text beside it reads “BeCore Like This Page September 18, 2015.”

Text in the middle reads:

JUUL at Cinespia

Photos by Ben Draper – at Hollywood Forever

(Image: A thumbs up icon)

Text in the second segment reads “Like (Image: Thumbs up icon) Comment (Image: message bubble icon) Share (Image: Rightward arrow icon).” A rectangle beneath has a text box with a prompt “Write a comment…” (Image: Smiley icon, camera icon, GIF icon, pencil writing on a paper icon).

Figure 3. JUUL Launch Party Event Promotion, Posted by Marketing Agency BeCore
A screenshot shows a post on Facebook by BeCore agency promoting a launch of a JUUL product.

The use of social media by JUUL Labs has also been heavily criticized. Social media platforms popular with adolescents and young adults, such as Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, were used to distribute marketing and promotional content (see Figure 4). Some of these posts appeared on the accounts of agencies and other third parties (see Figure 5). Researchers at Georgia State University report that in 2015 there was an average of 765 JUUL related tweets per month. This number grew substantially to a monthly average of 1,774 in 2016 and to 30,565 in 2017. The official JUUL Twitter account (@JUULVapor) was responsible for more than 4,800 of the posts during this period (2015–2017). The researchers also observed that the increase of JUUL tweets tracked well with the growth in retail sales (Huang et al., 2019). In addition to Twitter, the Georgia State researchers also examined JUUL’s official Instagram account. They concluded that the majority of Instagram posts fell into one of four categories: lifestyle images (e.g., relaxation, freedom), product images, customer feedback and testimonials, and flavor images. The researchers also uncovered six additional JUUL-related Instagram accounts created by online retailers that sell JUUL products. The most active account was “Doit4JUUL,” an account created by online retailers EonSmoke (see www.econsmoke.com). By February 2018, this account had attracted 81,800 followers who were encouraged to share pictures and videos on their social media accounts that documented their experience with the JUUL product. In May 2019, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit again EonSmoke. The complaint alleges that “Eonsmoke violated the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act by directly targeting young people for sales of its vaping products—including electronic nicotine devices, e-liquids, and nicotine pods—through marketing and advertising intended to appeal to youth” (US Official News, 2019; see Figure 6). As of November 21, 2019, a number of EonSmoke’s U.S. social media accounts were inaccessible. A March 2018 search of YouTube yielded more than 132,000 JUUL-related videos. One of the most-watched JUUL related videos was posted by “Doit4JUUL” (191,438 views as of 3/1/18; Huang et al., 2019). Another study published in JAMA Pediatrics analyzed the public profiles of individuals’ following JUUL’s official Twitter account. The authors report that in April 2018, of the 9,077 active followers, an estimated 80.6% were 13–20 years of age (Kim et al., 2019).

A photo on the left side of the page shows a JUUL vapor device placed on a laptop. An external hard disk and a headphone are around the keypad.

Right side of the screenshot is divided into three segments by horizontal lines. First segment has a JUUL logo and the text beside the logo reads “juulvapor (Image: tick mark icon) • Follow.” Text below the photo reads:

juulvapor Just the essentials. This #JUULmoment by @sub0hmbre

-

-

-

-

-

-

WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical. #JUUL #JUULVapor

Second segment has a heart icon and a message bubble icon on the left and a bookmark icon on the right. Text below the icons read:

535 likes

OCTOBER 18, 2017

Text in the third segment reads “Add a comment…” Three small circles (aligned horizontally) are on the bottom left corner of the screenshot.

Figure 4. JUUL Social Media Post
A screenshot shows a post on Instagram by JUUL about their product JUUL vapor device.

A photo on the left side of the page shows a group of seven teenagers with vapor devices posing for the camera. Two boys in the front are bending forward with a vapor device in their mouth. One of them is holding a skateboard in his hands.

Right side of the screenshot is divided into four segments by horizontal lines. First segment has a profile photo of a man turning backwards and text beside the photo reads “coacd • Follow.”

Text in the second segment reads:

coacd U MAD BRO (Image: Exclamation mark icon) #JUUL #JUULvapor #vaporized #lightscameravapor

tabbywakes @slowgunzz

juulvapor Squad

coacd @tabbywakes hey who is the purple hair girl?

tabbywakes @smocahontass @coacd

buukcase (Image: Smiling face emoji)

Third segment has a heart icon and a message bubble icon on the left and a bookmark icon on the right. Text below the icons read:

38 likes

JUNE 4, 2015

Text in the fourth segment reads “Add a comment…” Three small circles (aligned horizontally) are on the bottom left corner of the screenshot.

Figure 5. Instagram Post by Casting Agency Coacd
A screenshot shows a post on Instagram by Coacd casting agency about the JUUL vapor device.

A photo on the left side of the image shows a JUUL vapor device connected to a USB drive.

Right side of the screenshot is divided into four segments by horizontal lines. First segment has a logo of EonSmoke and the text beside the logo reads “EonSmoke • Follow.”

Text in the second segment reads:

eonsmoke Mom! It’s a USB drive!! #eonsmoke

#juulcompatible #juulgang #vapeshops #vapeshopskl # vaporizer #juul #juulvapor #juulcentral #doit4juul #juulcentral #juulnation #cigarette #juulpods #juulgang #smok #bovaping #smokeshop #smokeshops #smokeshopowners #smokeshopbogota #vonerl #bovape #eonpods #xfire #xfirepix #juulkiller #eonpods

issacyoung_ how the fuck is this possible

gofookyourselfbeech I told my dad that about my old juul and he actually fell for it lol indirahasanah Apa anitu

Third segment has a heart icon, a message bubble icon and an upload icon on the left and a bookmark icon on the right. Text below the icons read:

404 likes

JANUARY 15, 2018

Text in the fourth segment reads “Log in to like or comment.” Three small circles (aligned horizontally) are on the bottom left corner of the screenshot.

Figure 6. Instagram Post by Online Retailer EonSmoke
A screenshot shows a post on Instagram by a retailer EonSmoke about the JUUL vapor device.

Social media influencers were also part of JUUL Lab’s marketing strategy. In the early days of the company, a position was posted for an “influencer marketing intern” to interact with influencers and encourage favorable content (Nedelman et al., 2018). An internal communication from 2015 reported that the company had “targeted 1,500 current smokers turned JUUL influencers to spread the word. These influencers have strong networks in fashion, music, and entertainment - many of whom have incredibly strong presence in social media with millions of followers.” Their strategy was to “get JUUL into the hands of over 12,500 influencer(s) subsequently introducing JUUL to over 1.5 M people” (House Committee on Oversight and Reform, n.d.). In 2017, as scrutiny of their marketing practices intensified, JUUL raised the average age of its models to 35. They subsequently replaced models with images of real adult consumers who were switching from cigarettes to JUUL” (Chaykowski, 2018). When asked about their use of social influencers, a JUUL spokesperson stated, “our paid influencer program, which was never formalized, was a small short-lived pilot.” The company paid less than USD 10,000 to less than ten smokers or former smokers over the age of 30 (Maloney, 2019). Lumanu, an influencer marketing firm, was employed to assist in recruiting these social influencers. One influencer, Christina Zayas (age 36), was in 2017 paid USD 1,000 for one blog post and one Instagram post. The Instagram post reached more than 4,500 people and attracted approximately 1,500 likes (Nedelman et al., 2018; see Figure 7). Another influencer, Lauran Ellner (age 30), confirmed that she, too, was recruited by Lumanu in 2017. The agency sent her talking points, directions, and guidelines but allowed her creative control over her postings. When potential influencers expressed an interest in helping to support the brand’s efforts, they were directed to an influencer page on the official JUUL website (see Figure 8; Nedelman et al., 2018).This page no longer exists. JUUL-related hashtags (e.g., #JUUL, #JUULvapor, #vaporized) were prevalent throughout social media and helped to extend the brand’s reach.

Top pane of the image has a logo of Instagram, a vertical line, and text “Instagram” on the left. A text box with a prompt “Search (Image: magnifying glass)” is in the middle. A compass icon, heart icon, and a user icon are on the right side of the top pane.

A photo on the left side of the image shows a woman smoking with a JUUL vapor device. She is leaning her back on a staircase and is looking upward with a vapor device in her hand.

Right side of the screenshot is divided into four segments by horizontal lines. First segment has a profile photo of a woman and a text beside the photo reads “christinazayas • Follow New York, New York.”

Text in the second segment reads:

christinazayas When smoking cigarettes is not an option, I’ve turned to @juulvapor. Read why, via the link in my bio! #JUULmoment #ad (Image: Puff of smoke emoji)

View all 47 comments

theparisianman Enjoy the moment babe (Image: monkey covering face emoji, victory hand emoji, clock emoji)

irinaliakh Ohhh I need it my life (Image: Monkey face emoji, smiling face with heart eyes emoji)

cpwears Damn girl you look like “it was all a dream” - Nelly

Third segment has a heart icon, a message bubble icon and an upload icon on the left and a bookmark icon on the right. Text below the icons read:

1,507 likes

NOVEMBER 13, 2017

Text in the fourth segment reads “Add a comment…” Three small circles (aligned horizontally) are on the bottom left corner of the screenshot.

Figure 7. Example of a Social Influencer Post by Christina Zayas
A screenshot shows a post on Instagram by an influencer Christina Zayas about the JUUL vapor device.

Top left corner of the screenshot has a logo of JUUL and a text beside the logo reads “JUUL (Image: tick mark icon) @JUULvapor”. An oval on the top right corner of screenshot reads “Follow” and a downward arrowhead is beside the oval.

Text in the middle of the image reads

“Replying to

Hi Dave, thanks for reaching out! Feel free to apply to be an influencer by visiting: juulvapor.com/influencers. If our Team is interested they may be in touch with you.

A rectangular box beneath the text has a photo of a JUUL vapor device on the left. Text on the right side of the box reads:

JUUL | The Smoking Alternative, unlike any E-Cigarette or V…

Shop vaporizers and JUULpods on the official JUUL website. You can also subscribe to our Auto-Ship program for automatic deleveries and more special offers. juul.com

Text in the bottom left corner of the screenshot reads “1:40 PM - 19 Feb 2018.”

Figure 8. JUUL Sharing Information About Their Influencer Program on Twitter
A screenshot shows a post in Twitter by JUUL regarding the application to their influencer program.

JUUL Labs has also been criticized for reportedly targeting young children through sponsoring summer camps, visiting schools, and paying community groups to distribute materials. As part of their youth tobacco prevention program, JUUL reportedly paid USD 134,000 to sponsor a five-week “holistic health education” summer camp in Baltimore for grades 3–12. In return for their sponsorship, the company would receive data on students, including results of assessments on health knowledge and risky behaviors. In the end, JUUL did not collect this information. JUUL also offered to pay USD 10,000 to high schools that would “use the JUUL sponsored curriculum” during classes. This short-lived youth prevention program has been compared to initiatives previously adopted by Big Tobacco as a way to fend off regulation. JUUL claimed in a statement that their intention “to educate youth on the dangers of nicotine addiction – was clearly misconstrued” (Azad, 2019).

In September 2018, The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent JUUL a letter requesting information about its marketing practices. The FTC is an independent government agency whose primary goal is the promotion of consumer protection and the prevention of unfair, deceptive, or fraudulent practices. The FTC purview includes protecting children from unfair and deceptive marketing practices. The nonpublic investigation was reportedly to examine whether JUUL had engaged in deceptive marketing, including the use of social media influencers to appeal to underage consumers (Maloney, 2019).

Tobacco Advertising and Children

This is not the first time that the marketing practices of tobacco companies have come under scrutiny. In the 1980s, the U.S. marketing department of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR) were looking for a way to promote their Camel brand’s 75th anniversary. Searching through the company archives, they discovered the cartoon character Joe Camel. Joe Camel was conceived in the 1950s by an unknown art director working on a T-shirt promotion for the brand in Europe. The company decided to use the character in their advertising campaign and in 1987 the Joe Camel campaign was launched. Within five years, the brand’s market share grew from 2.7 to 4.1%. Many attributed the growth in market share to the Joe Camel campaign (Allan & Wood, 2009). RJR executives openly admitted selecting a “spokescartoon” with a contemporary image to attract new younger customers. Three studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that Joe Camel’s audience was far too young, that recognition of the character was greater among children than adults, and that cartoon camel advertisements and promotions encouraged children to smoke (Allan & Wood, 2009).

Academic research has found that adolescents are often affected by marketing communications. Young people actively search for cues in advertising that help them conform to their peers (Morrison et al., 2008). Cigarettes and, by extension, e-cigarettes are props that can assist adolescents with managing their image (Cohen, 2000). Advertising is also impactful for normalizing risk orientated products (Wilcox et al., 2004). Research has revealed that youth are susceptible to the tobacco industry marketing communications. Social media, by design, allows for and encourages sharing content. Individuals can easily create and share content across different platforms to their peer networks. Is it reasonable to assume that young people are vulnerable to e-cigarette messaging that is distributed via social media, particularly messaging that contains cues that help normalize usage of the product and helps them conform with their peers?

Advertising Regulations

Regulations addressing the advertising of cigarettes date to the 1960s. The Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 required manufacturers to include a warning about the dangers of smoking on all cigarette packages. In 1969, the statute was amended (The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969), and manufacturers were required to include a sterner warning on all cigarette packages. By 1972, the same warning was required to appear in newspapers, magazine, and billboard advertisements (Miles, n.d.). Cigarette advertising on television and radio became illegal effective January 2, 1971, but continued to appear in print and outdoor media. The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement between tobacco companies and 46 states, which was reached in 1998, added additional restrictions (“Master Settlement Agreement,” n.d.). These new restrictions banned advertising on billboards, events, and sports sponsorship or any marketing that targets youth. Furthermore, in 2009, to curb youth appeal, the FDA banned all flavored cigarettes, except menthol (LaVito, 2019). Unfortunately, none of these restrictions apply to e-cigarettes. One of the reasons cited for lack of constraints is that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency responsible for regulating the radio, television, and phone industries, has no role in the regulation of these products. Another reason is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates the e-cigarette market, moves slowly and requires considerable support from scientifically based research. Finally, there is a hesitation in placing limits on commercial free speech that may interfere with the potential of e-cigarettes to help smokers cease smoking or switch to a less harmful alternative (Brown, n.d.; Lindblom, 2015). Anti-smoking advocates would like to see the same limitations applied to the marketing of e-cigarettes that apply to traditional tobacco burning cigarettes. This would include banning advertising from TV and radio, transit advertising, billboards, branded merchandise, event sponsorship, and prohibiting the distribution of free samples (Andrews, 2019).

JUUL Responds

JUUL vehemently denies targeting underage consumers. The JUUL Corporate Communications and Public Relations representative, Ted Kwong, stated, “Our product is intended to be a viable alternative for current adult smokers only. We do not want non-nicotine users, especially youth, to ever try our product” (Rodriguez, 2019). Yet the negative backlash and allegations persist.

On November 13, 2018, the JUUL Labs Action Plan appeared on the company website. The plan outlines the company’s future strategy in terms of product offering, distribution, and how they planned to handle social media. In this plan, the company acknowledges that some flavors of their product may appeal to young consumers. The company announced they would be stopping sales of fruit-flavored nicotine pods in retail stores, convenience stores, and specialty vape stores. These flavors would still be able to purchase on the company website (Chaykowski, 2018). They also acknowledged that social media was a primary source of information for young people but claimed that 99% of social media content related to the company was generated “through third-party users and accounts with no affiliation” to the company (“Juul Labs Action Plan,” 2018). Despite this claim, the company made the decision to close their U.S. accounts on Facebook and Instagram (Chaykowski, 2018). The company also vowed to work directly with social media platforms to remove tens of thousands of inappropriate posts. The company website now contains a Marketing & Social Media Code (https://www.juul.com/our-responsibility).

In 2019, in anticipation of a forthcoming policy requiring that all flavored e-cigarettes be removed from the market, JUUL announced that they were suspending sales of their fruity flavors (LaVito, 2019). “We must reset the vapor category by earning the trust of society and working cooperatively with regulators, policymakers, and stakeholders to combat underage use while providing an alternative to adult smokers,” said a JUUL spokesperson (Haglage, 2019). In the summer of 2019, JUUL launched a ten million dollar TV, radio, and print campaign “Make the switch” to a healthier alternative (Andrews, 2019). In September 2019, an Altria executive became the JUUL CEO. On January 2, 2020, the FDA issued a policy outlining their enforcement plan against unauthorized flavored e-cigarette products that appeal to youth. “Under this policy, companies that do not cease manufacture, distribution, and sale of unauthorized flavored cartridge-based e-cigarettes (other than tobacco or menthol) within 30 days risk FDA enforcement actions” (Food and Drug Administration, 2020).

A Plan of Action Moving Forward

Adam and James reflected on their past and considered the future. They thought that their company was saying all the right things, but actions speak louder than words. Winston Churchill said that “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Are Adam and James making history or repeating it? What now? Both began to vape.

Discussion Questions
  • Even though it is legal to sell and advertise e-cigarettes, is it ethical? Why or why not? What ethical principles underlie your decision-making and, ultimately, your judgment?
  • RJ Reynolds argued that they never intended for Joe Camel to be popular with children. JUUL argues that its advertising is not targeted towards teenagers. Was it ethical for JUUL to use social media and influencers in the way that they did? How does intent versus effect affect your judgment?
  • Would a complete ban on all cigarette advertising (including e-cigarettes) violate the legal and/or moral rights of a company? Should JUUL voluntarily decide to forego advertising because it is considered by some as the ethical thing to do?
  • The class-action lawsuit filed in 2019 alleged that JUUL Labs “Purposefully tried to get teenagers hooked on deceptive marketing tactics.” The wrongful death suit complaint filed in October 2019 on behalf of Daniel David Wakefield leveled allegations against the company for “wrongdoing in marketing, promoting, manufacturing, designing and selling JUUL”? Do you believe that JUUL Labs engaged in deceptive, unethical, or predatory business practices? In your answer, address each of the four Ps (product, price, place, and promotion).
  • In the same class action lawsuit (see Discussion Question 4), the complaint stated that JUUL Labs were “mimicking Big Tobacco’s past marketing practices.” Examine JUUL marketing practices and compare them to those adopted by RJ Reynolds.
  • Do you believe that online retailers, such as EonSmoke, engaged in promotional activities that directly targeted underage consumers? Explain your answer.
  • JUUL Labs state that they believe that 99% of the social media content related to the company was generated through “third party accounts with no affiliation” to JUUL. What responsibility do you think JUUL Labs has to monitor JUUL content created and posted by third parties?
  • A program created by JUUL Labs to educate the youth of the dangers of nicotine addiction proved to be unsuccessful. A spokesperson for the company said that their intentions were “misconstrued.” What went wrong, and how could have this been prevented?
  • Review the actions of JUUL Labs since November 13, 2018, when they posted their Action Plan, including the company’s social media code, on their website. Comment on these actions. Do you think the actions that they have taken to discourage and prevent underage use of JUUL are sufficient? Review their social media code posted on their website. Do you think it is sufficiently detailed? What would you do if you were the social media manager for JUUL?
Further Reading
  • An internet search will return a wide selection of JUUL advertising images and social media posts. Search terms: JUUL advertising, JUUL social media.
  • In addition, a collection of more 2,500 social media, print, and outdoor advertisements for JUUL are available on Stanford University’s Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising website. Visit www.tobacco.stanford.edu. From the navigation menu select “Pods”.
  • Burkhalter, J. N., Wood, N. T., & Tryce, S. (2014). Clear, conspicuous and complete: Exploring deception in microblogging environments, Business Horizons, May/June, 319–328.
  • DesJardins, J. R., & McCall, J. J. (2015). Contemporary issues in business ethics (6th ed.). Wadsworth/Cengage.
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Endorsement Guidelines. www.ftc.gov
  • Wood, N.T., & Munoz, C. (2017). #Share: How to Mobilize Social Word of Mouth (sWOM). Business Expert Press.
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