Juul to Attack Teen Vaping With Smart Phone Technology

Juul Under FDA Pressure

In a February 19 press release, Juul provided a status report on their November, 2018 action plan. Their action plan was created in response to new FDA regulations on e-cigs, but it remains to be seen if federal regulators and FDA director Scott Gottlieb will be satisfied with their progress. Apart from the flavor and age verification measures outlined in November, Juul is edging ever closer to a technological solution that relies on Bluetooth technology Will this added functionality be widely embraced like the smartphone technology on which it piggybacks, or will it be widely panned like the intrusive Keurig 2.0 coffee maker? Vaping world, welcome to the internet of things.

Technology Solutions

Juul’s pursuit of technological solutions to underage vaping have yet to bear any fruit, but expect an announcement in the near future. According to their press release, they beefing up their individualized device traceability system and using distribution channel tracking to locate vendors who sell to minors. Simply ironing out the logistics will probably not satisfy the FDA. What Juul hopes will be the biggest game changer is a Bluetooth enabled device which restricts access at the user level. Details are a bit scant, but a list of Juul’s patents can be read here. Juul has invested tens of millions of dollars into this smart technology. With the teen vaping epidemic dominating headlines, perhaps it was inevitable that an e-cigarette would help kick off the "internet of things" revolution in earnest. There are plenty of appliances, vehicles, computers, traceable parts, manufactured goods and countless other items that are linked to a network. Countless products have associated smartphone apps but no connectivity. What is not widespread are inexpensive consumable goods and devices that share data directly using Bluetooth and cellphone technology. The internet of things was envisioned as a boon for logistics, manufacturing and gathering marketing data. Perhaps it can help tamp down underage vaping by restricting the device at the point of use. The technology to impose controls on the use of a Bluetooth vaping device appears to be mature. All that remains to be seen is if it will be widely embraced by the market.

Restricting Teen Vaping at the Point of Use

Juul appears to have big plans for Bluetooth technology. A crucial component of this approach is that future Bluetooth Juul devices would be paired with a single smartphone and their use restricted by a smartphone app. This strategy could work in number of ways, and Juul will clarify which approach they have adopted later this spring. The obvious solution is a dedicated Juul app. Relying on a Bluetooth link and near field communications, the device could not be used when smartphone to which it is linked is out of range. This approach would require that a Juul user install an app, verify their age and pair their newly purchased Bluetooth Juul device to a single smartphone, possibly using a QR style code, before it will function. Newly purchased pods would also require registration. This would in theory cut off the social channels through which the majority minors obtain their e-cigs. It also would give Juul access to a host of metrics on device use, user profiles and consumption patterns. The Bluetooth Juul could also limit use to the rightful owner by taking advantage of the current generation of smartphone's ability to read biometric identifiers. Stealing your parents password or borrowing mom's cellphone would not be enough if a thumbprint or facial scan is required to activate the Juul. A simpler approach to curtailing teen vaping would be geofencing. This would prevent a Bluetooth equipped Juul from being used on school property. All that would be required for this approach is a dedicated wi-fi network at the school. Any Juul within range of this network would not fire. The problem with using this method alone, without a dedicated app, is that it could be circumvented with a Juul sized Farraday pouch that blocks network signals. Geofencing would have one advantage over  based on a phone app: a minor who had successfully synched his Juul and cellphone with the profile of a legal age adult would still be blocked from vaping when within range of this network. It would also impose fewer restrictions on adult users looking for a cigarette alternative and hesitant to harness their device to a cellphone interface.

Bluetooth Technology to Block Compatible Pod Use?

What is flying under the radar is how Juul can use Bluetooth technology and an integrated smartphone app to require that each purchased pod is scanned and verified before use. This may not only shut out minors but could also shut down compatible pods made by other manufacturers. This is an established approach and first made waves when the Keurig 2.0 was launched. The Keurig 2.0 was designed to prevent compatible and refillable coffee pods from being used in a Keurig coffee machine. Keurig adopted this approach when their K-cup patent expired and the market was flooded with less expensive alternatives. By designing a brewing machine that only worked with their licensed pods, they were able to protect their margins and squeeze out lower-priced rivals. The Keurig system worked by scanning the ink on the top of the K-cup. Keurig may have taken it a step too far when they claimed that rival pods could actually damage the brewing machines. As a result of this aggressive stance, Keurig faces class action lawsuits for anti-competitive abuse of monopoly power. Keurig has also been accused of filing frivolous patent claims and the intrusiveness of the Keurig 2.0 led to a large number of consumer complaints when it was launched. There is no technological obstacle to prevent Juul from adopting this same approach but there are regulatory ones. The FDA has frozen advances in e-cig technology as of 2016. The process to obtain approval of a Bluetooth vaping device promises to be expensive and difficult. But by presenting the Bluetooth innovations as being a crucial component of their strategy to fight teen vaping, it is possible that they can forge ahead with compatible pod restrictions as well. For the time being, they can also test and perfect these technologies in other markets where the regulations are not as strict.

 Will Consumers Embrace a Smart Vape?

It is unclear how Juul's customers will respond a cigarette alternative that is tightly integrated with a smart phone. One of Juul's major selling points is its simplicity. A suite of smartphone features seems to run counter to this approach. Will vapers be willing to scan every pod on their cellphone before plugging it into their device? Are adults of legal age willing to enter a password or even use their cellphones facial recognition software before taking a quick puff. Will smoking suddenly seem more attractive when your cigarette alternative requires a cellphone to fire? Juul has promised that the dedicated app will help aid cessation by tracking nicotine consumption. Is this a tradeoff that vapers are willing make? No matter what course they end up choosing, using Bluetooth technology is an intrusive approach, and one likely to prompt countermeasures from teenagers dedicated to vaping. Whether it is simple geofencing, syncing a Juul with a cellphone or a restrictive app that requires that each pod is scanned before use, FDA approval is required. Expect to hear more about these technologies in the near future. It will be interesting to see what approach Juul adopts.

Juul Youth Prevention Action Plan

The future technological innovations are the most interesting aspect of Juul's fight to rehabilitate their image and curtail sales to minors. According to their press release, they are continuing to grind away and work on the action plan they outlined November. Here is what they have done so far.

Restricting Flavors

The most visible move that Juul made in November was to restrict the sales of flavors that are perceived “youth friendly” by critics. Mango, Fruit, Crème and Cucumber flavors were all pulled from retail stores. This included over 90,000 brick and mortar establishments. How long they hold the line on this remains to be seen but these products are still available on their e-commerce website.

Social Media

Juul’s effective use of social media influencers has led to widespread denunciation in the media, by rival companies and by anti-vaping activitists. As a result, they have shelved their Facebook and Instagram accounts. With nearly complete name brand recognition, this is unlikely to impact sales. The uptick in teen vaping that has been tied to Juul continues to pose an existential threat to the entire industry. The impact of their successes may still reverberate in the form of sales, but the internet remembers all.

Online Controls

Juul has beefed up their age verification technology for online orders. Vapor4Life is fully on board with keeping our products out of the hands of children as well. We rely on Veradad, Veratad, the industry leader in age verification technology. This is the same system that is used by the largest companies selling age restricted products online including vaping supplies, ejuice, alcohol and sports betting. Rather just a meaningless check box, this system compares purchaser data against multiple trusted data sources.

Retail Controls

Juul has expanded their secret shopper programs and beefed up penalties for non-compliance. This is an important step. If they don’t do this, then various government agencies have no qualms about stepping in. In early February, the FDA barred specific retailers from selling tobacco and e-cig products after a series of stings. The city of Chicago took it a step further last fall. The Chicago e-juice crackdown involved actual lawsuits brought against stores that were accused of selling e-juices to minors.

21+ Legislation

Juul CEO Kevin Burns has long argued that Juul is acting in good faith and their goal is improve the lives of adult smokers. In the November press release which outlined Juul’s action plan he stated, “We don’t want anyone who doesn’t smoke, or already use nicotine, to use JUUL products. We certainly don’t want youth using the product.” They are vocal in their support of Tobacco 21+ legislation, but ultimately the FDA will decide if their efforts have been in earnest. The future of face of vaping rests largely on the FDA’s final decision.