Senators Accuse Juul of Marketing to Minors

Senate Investigates Juul

The ability of US Senators to understand the basics of 21st century marketing will be put to the test. On Monday April 8, eleven Democratic senators opened an investigation into vaping giant Juul. Not surprisingly, Dick Durbin of Illinois is at the forefront.

While the FDA considers banning nic salt fueled, prefilled vape pod systems, this group of Senators is looking for evidence that Juul intentionally tried to get children hooked on their product.

The Senator’s letter to Juul CEO Kevin Burns is a request for information on Juul’s past, present and future marketing strategies. They also seek information on the company's relationship with "Big Tobacco".

It would be nice if this Senate investigation was initiated in good faith and with an open mind. But it sure looks like an effort to chastise Juul, score political points, and cherry pick information to confirm their firmly held beliefs.  

A Letter to Juul

The Senators described Juul’s business practices as being shrouded in “immense secrecy”. Juul is a privately owned company. They cannot be expected to be as transparent about their methods and motivations as these Senators about the truth of their convictions.

“We write today seeking more information seeking more information regarding JUUL’s tactics to hook children on nicotine.”

Senate Letter to Juul

This is a bold accusation, and it is not much of an investigation if they have their minds made up already.

“Given the fact that our public health agencies have identified JUUL as being largely responsible for fueling the e-cigarette epidemic among youth- and given the immense secrecy shrouding JUUL’s business practices- we request documents and responses to following questions.”

Senate Letter to Juul

Senators Have Questions for Juul

The Senators are hoping to prove Juul intentionally targeted children. They are requesting information on all of Juul’s advertising buys. This includes television, radio, print, retail store displays and social media. Of particular interest to the Senators are the influencers Juul hired for social media.

They are also looking for proof, in the form of a US based clinical trial, that Juul products help smokers quit. Aware of the answer, they also demanded explanation for why such a study has not yet been conducted. A quick google search reveals that such a study has been conducted and is indexed with the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The research phase concluded in August 2018, but the results have yet to be posted. If a recent study published in the high-impact New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) is any indication, the Senators may not like the results of the study.

In the NEJM study, e-cigarettes were twice as effective as nicotine replacement therapy for smoking cessation. The device provided in this study was a classic stick battery cartomizer. Juul has recently released a study which demonstrated that flavors aid smoking cessation.

Senators Seek Sales Data from Juul

The Senators apparently want a look at Juul’s books as well. They have demanded Juul provide them with, “All new contracting, purchasing order, and other financial arrangements with retailers, wholesalers and distributor for Juul products since December 19, 2018, Altria announcement.”

They have also requested granular information on Juul sales, “Broken down by retail and online- between all of Juul’s flavored products- including year-over-year aggregate sales, and percentage sales between flavored Juul pods.” The goal of this request is to prove that Juul is aware that their flavored products appeal to minors.

Among the more interesting, and partisan, requests made by the eleven Democratic senators is for Juul to outline any contributions they made to “conservative-leaning and anti-regulation organizations”. Juul increased their lobbying budget before the Altria buy-in, but this request still has a whiff of ideological McCarthyism.

Juul was apparently expected to roll over and play dead, but the Senators shouldn't surprised that a multi-billion dollar company is defending their interests through legal channels.

Altria-Juul Alliance Vilified

The source of great anger and indignation, which courses through every sentence in the Senator’s letter to Juul, stems from the alliance between Altria and Juul.

“While Juul has promised to address youth vaping through its modest voluntary efforts, by accepting $12.8 billion from Altria- a tobacco giant with such a disturbing record of deceptive marketing to hook children onto cigarettes- Juul has lost what little remaining credibility the company had when it claimed to care about public health.”

Senate letter to Juul

They are of course referring to Marlboro maker Altria purchasing 35 percent of Juul. And there is no doubt that by allying themselves with "Big Tobacco", Juul’s has harmed their public image and given their critics plenty of ammunition. Just as importantly, it has raised tensions between FDA regulators and Juul.

The FDA clashed with Juul and Altria over perceived double dealing. At issue was Altria’s statements about not being interested in the pod business, which were made just a month before they bought a large stake in Juul.

Juul is under fire because teaming with Altria will greatly increase their footprint at brick and mortar locations. When the new FDA e-cig regulations were announced last fall, Juul acted as if they planned on ramping down their retail efforts.

Altria and Juul Want to Eliminate Competition With Flavor Ban

Not surprisingly, Altria is trying to use FDA regulations and e-cig restrictions to their advantage. Altria supports a flavor ban because it would lock in Juul’s market position by eliminating the competition.

Next to an FDA ban, the biggest challenge Juul faces is from refillable vape pod systems. These open systems provide better performance, the same level of convenience and have literally thousands of flavors to choose from.

Knocking rival nic salt ejuice flavors off the table would seriously strengthen Juul’s hand. There is no question that nicotine salts play a huge role in Juul’s popularity. Any effort to discuss Juul or teen vaping that does not address salt nic cannot be taken as a serious effort.

Our deep dive into salt nic ejuice explores how this potent e-liquid permanently changed the e-cigarette industry. The Senate letter to Juul does not contain one reference to nicotine salts.

Juul Sales

Sales numbers demonstrate that Juul is more popular with minors than other devices and forms of vaping. The correlation between this statistic, and Juul’s use of influencers and social media does not necessarily mean they targeted minors.

Juul’s sales may have increased when they tweeted, but they continued to increase after they withdrew from all social media platforms. In fact, Juul’s sales have increased consistently for years and they now make up 70 percent of the e-cig market.

Whatever return on investment Juul’s influencer and social media campaigns achieved, it is being outweighed by the long-term public relations headache it has caused.

The portability of their device and the potency of the nic salts are the primary selling points of Juul. These features appeal to adults new to vaping. They also make the Juul device ideal for covert vaping.

Check out our feature on The Truth and Technology Behind Juul and Nic Salts, for a complete breakdown of the technological innovations behind the Juul device and nic salts.

Juul’s and E-Cig Marketing

Almost every critique of Juul’s tactics will reference a Stanford study of e-cig marketing. It is enlightening to see how loosely the authors of the study defined “marketing to teens”. Apparently, free samples at sporting events and concerts automatically qualifies.

Without specific details on the concerts in question, the live gate and ticket sales, I cannot debunk this claim. But a distinction should be drawn between adults in their 20s and the minors who are driving the teen vaping epidemic.

The report summary from the Stanford study are not a credit to the university, and embody the very worst aspects of soft science. Discussing Juul’s short lived “Vaporized” campaign, they noted that Juul’s campaign, “featured models in their 20s appearing in trendy clothes engaged in poses and movements more evocative of underage teens than mature adults.”

This word salad could mean almost anything. Youthful models and bright colors are standard advertising fare. You don’t see Lincoln commercials featuring octogenarians, bragging about their first taste of true luxury: a brown, landau topped Continental Mark IV.

Complaints about playful posing and bright colors appear throughout the Stanford survey on e-cig marketing. Perhaps awkward, sullen, seething and sickly models sporting hairshirts and shouting lamentations while flagellating themselves should have been employed instead.

Luckily, the study authors provided additional clarification. “Some attendees were photographed in poses reminiscent of teen behavior, such as wearing a hat on backwards, while holding a skate board, or a girl with purple hair holding a Juul.”  

To make matters worse, “Photos show attractive young girls in colorful Juul tee shirts serving as hosts and distributors of free samples.” Below is their image of “young girls”.

Far be it from me to assume how these women want to characterize themselves. They are young, and by all accounts female. But to call them “young girls” seems to be a misogynistic leap.

Would two men of the same age and in gender equivalent outfits be labelled as “young boys”? It feels a bit inappropriate and even insulting, but who am I to judge what is offensive?

"Young Girls" according to Stanford researchers.

The Stanford study also complained about Juul’s affiliate program, which by Juul’s account had less than 2 dozen members. The study concluded that this foray into youth culture lasted only 6 months, and Juul adopted more traditional tobacco-style advertising for the last 18 months they analyzed. Talk about burying the lede.

Accusations without Data Insights

Their concerns that Juul’s advertising was distributed on channels frequented by youth is a more legitimate complaint. But concerns about, “hashtag extensions, and catalyzed by compensated influencers and affiliates”, are outdated. These are standard practices on social media.

Overall, there is not much meat on the bone. Facebook Insights, Sprout Social, Instagram and countless other analytics platforms have tools which could provide real numbers to back up these vague accusations. The fact Juul didn't provide Stanford with this information to aid them in creating this hit piece must be the "immense secrecy" that the Senate letter warned us about.

Without any empirical evidence, the Stanford report is a gallery of images curated with a heavy dose of speculation and innuendo.  

Millennial Does Not Equal Minor

Now is as good of a time as any to remind the reader of a salient fact: millennial does not equal minor. The millennial demographic cohort ranges from 23 to 38 years of age. The CDC Tobacco Fact Sheet shows that the recent gains in made in reducing smoking rates do not apply to millennials.

Put another way, targeting millennials at concerts is not the same as marketing to minors. If Juul really was targeting non-smokers, that is an another issue entirely, and one not touched upon in the Stanford "study".

Targeting Marginalized Groups

An entire subsection of the Stanford study was dedicated to e-cig companies targeting the LGBT community, African Americans, the homeless and promoting vaping in the US military. It is not hard to figure out why these groups might be a natural audience for e-cigarette manufacturers.

The LGBT community has the highest smoking and vaping rates of any US census demographic group. Denying access to cigarette alternatives will have real consequences.

There isn't much room for nuance in political debates, but former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb freely acknowledged the real world benefits of e-cigarettes in virtually every interview, including this one on Fox News:

“We believe these products are less harmful than smoking and for a currently addicted adult smoker who can quit cigarettes by migrating onto an e-cigarette they are probably having a positive impact on their health, and maybe a significant impact on their health.”

Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb

African Americans on average have less success with smoking cessation using traditional nicotine replacement therapy, but no group has a higher percentage of vapers who have totally given up combustible cigarettes. This trend makes sense in light of the NEJM study.

There was no subsection on marketing directed at poor rural Americans in flyover country, but they are another group that is disproportionately impacted by e-cig bans. Iowa Attorney General Thomas Miller, a staunch foe of Big Tobacco, has always been quick to protect the interests of rural smokers. He was quick to question brick and mortar sales restrictions in his logical and tautly reasoned letter to the FDA

On the flip side of the coin, San Francisco wants to ban e-cigs. In a case of tragic irony, this bastion of LGBTQ rights and harm reduction policies is willing to deny marginalized groups access to cigarette alternatives.  

The reality on the ground is that total nicotine abstinence is an unrealistic gold standard, and strict e-cig laws punish marginalized groups.

Marketing to Minors

At Vapor4Life, we have no interest in selling to minors. Our goal is to provide the best cigarette alternatives to adult smokers. We perform our due diligence by carding everyone who steps foot in our Northbrook vape shop and using industry leading age verification technology.

If the Senators find a smoking gun which shows Juul was marketing to teenagers, rather than adult millennial smokers, then they should be held accountable. It would also be unconscionable if it turns out Juul was targeting adult non-smokers.

Despite the authors skepticism about the Senate letter and flavor bans, we realize teen vaping is a serious issue. It poses an existential threat to the vaping industry, and should be curtailed. We believe that strict age verification and education are more effective than punitive bans that may harm adult smokers.

We are not privy to Juul's marketing strategies. Perhaps, they Senators will uncover damning evidence with their request. But we feel the eleven Senators who signed this letter should at least entertain the possibility that the Juul device’s popularity explosion was brought about by a confluence of factors unrelated to social media, influencers and the sketchy track record of Big Tobacco.

Here is one alternative theory, which may seem far-fetched: when it hit the market the Juul device packed a much bigger nicotine, was easily concealed and also produced far less visible vapor.