They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but the final months of 2019 might have people at Juul thinking otherwise. Two new investigative reports released late last year, one from The New York Times and the other from Reuters, lay out powerful arguments indicating that Juul was never intended solely to be a smoking cessation aid or an alternative to traditional cigarettes. In fact, the company’s aggressive move toward marketing to young people caused shock and confusion to those who already worked there.
The headlines are damning. Reuters proclaims “Juul disregarded early evidence it was hooking teens” while The New York Times opens its report with “How Juul Hooked a Generation on Nicotine.”
Both reports tell the story of a company that may have initially been born out of a desire to make nicotine consumption cleaner and less dangerous than smoking traditional cigarettes, but whose rise to power was built on the backs of millennials and teens.
The New York Times surmises that Juul was never solely focused on its stated mission of providing a cleaner, less toxic way for smokers to get nicotine. While company founders and executives would publicly state that they never wanted customers who weren’t yet nicotine users “and certainly nobody underage,” privately the company was making moves to engage as many audiences as possible and even refused to sign a pledge to avoid marketing to teens. The result was millions of new nicotine addicts in the form of middle and high school students. According to numbers published by the FDA and CDC, about 25 percent of American high school students and ten percent of middle schoolers now vape.
As is a part of life in today’s times, when these kids vape, they do so publicly via social media. And for a company who owes much of its success to its social media savvy, there is no way that officials at Juul failed to notice that many of those using its hashtags and posing with its devices were children. In fact, a picture even made its way around Juul that was taken by an employee’s school-aged son from inside his school. Someone had drawn some Juul graffiti on a bathroom stall.
Reuters’ report focuses heavily on Juul’s introduction of nicotine salts as a method of increasing the amount of nicotine a user could ingest per puff. The new method would make for a smoother, less irritating hit than most other delivery systems and the result was more nicotine with less of a sore throat or harshness. In theory, this would make an almost limitless amount of nicotine available to a Juul user with no way of regulating dosing. Engineers in the company proposed software for the Juul that would shut the device down after a certain number of inhales, but the code was never introduced into production.
Juul appears to have taken a lot of its marketing strategies from Big Tobacco, an industry it initially set out to disrupt. However, if current trends continue, the company may take another part of its history from its big brother as well: being court ordered to drop the façade and admit to doing what everyone knew it was doing all along.