Some Consumer Products Are Dangerous by Design
It may come as a surprise to learn that some manufacturers out there are so driven for profit that they are willing to put their customers’ lives on the line in the quest for an ever-larger return. Juul is one such example, and it is currently on the fast track to outpace many of its competitors in this less than savory enterprise. If you are under the misguided impression – a misguided impression led directly by Juul Labs itself – that this brand of e-cigarette offers a safer alternative to smoking and that this company is doing smokers a favor by helping to save them from themselves, you are in for a rude awakening that many find downright shocking.
The Goal: Hooking a Generation
According to The New York Times in How Juul Hooked a Generation on Nicotine, Juul Labs is directly responsible for instigating what is well-positioned to become a full-on public health crisis via its direct marketing to impressionable millennials. Prior to Juul’s efforts – and those of some less powerful players – smoking rates for millennials were low, but this is no longer the case. To make matters worse, Juul Labs continues to ignore the mounting evidence that teenagers are wildly attracted to their products. It is a grim, ugly take that highlights just how callous manufacturers can be when it comes to consumer goods and profits.
Although investigations, lawsuits, and subpoenas keep coming at them, Juul Lab maintains that it has neither knowingly sold its delightfully fruity nicotine pods and the e-cigarettes used to smoke them to teens nor directed its marketing at them. The world at large, however, begs to differ. In the meantime, the company’s name has morphed into the term juuling, which is an unmitigated hit in high schools across the nation, including Texas. Juul’s mission statement is to provide smokers who are of age with a cigarette alternative that it deems safer than the real thing. The fact that the deaths of 480,000 people in the United States are hastened each year by cigarettes makes this claim seem reasonable – altruistic even.
Shocked, Shocked, I Tell You!
The co-founder of the Juul company testified at a congressional hearing in 2019 that we never wanted any non-nicotine user and certainly nobody underage to ever use Juul products. This statement, however, stretches the bounds of credulity. The cofounder may have spoken too soon because former execs at, investors with, and employees of the company – along with archived information from social media and reviews of legal findings – all share insider information that Juul’s goals were always far broader than simply offering smokers a helping hand in the form of a smoking alternative.
Rise to Fame
Juul’s unprecedented rise to fame and domination in the e-cigarette market is predicated on its direct marketing to a group that earned the distinction of having historically low smoking rates – those in their 20s and 30s, and an entirely new market was born. Not only did they go after the generation that was helping to put the kibosh on smoking, but they also did it with immense enthusiasm, stealth, and skill – in what The New York Times calls a furious effort to reward investors and capture market share before the government tightened regulations on vaping. And if that does not strike you as callous, nothing will.
No Can Do
Even as the numbers rolled in, proving that teenagers were hot for Juul’s sleekly designed and easy-to-hide products with the candy flavors, the company took a firm stand. In 2017, Juul refused to sign a pledge not to target teens as part of a lawsuit’s settlement. Juul did not even bother to include a nicotine warning label on its products that are so tantalizing to teens – until it was forced to do so by the Food and Drug Administration in 2018.
While former employees harken back to when one of the cofounders wore a tee-shirt badmouthing big tobacco, Juul’s early come-ons to potential investors included the pro of selling out to big tobacco as a mechanism for cashing out. In fact, the company sold a stake that amounted to a bit more than a third of its total to a tobacco industry goliath in 2018 for $12.8 billion (yes, billion). Juul has set the stage for hooking an entire generation on nicotine, and investors cannot seem to get enough. In fact, soon after the vaping contraption hit the market in 2015, investors that include major players like Fidelity Investments were already clamoring for ever-higher numbers – in something analogous to a feeding frenzy among sharks. It seems they were afraid of missing out on untold profits while regulation remained ambiguous.
Once the company that started as Pax Labs went through some growing pains, restructured as Juul, and got rid of the pesky executives who wanted to slow down and make sure things were working correctly, it hit the ground running and has not looked back. In fact, Juul snatched 75 percent of the vaping market in 2018, racking up over a billion in sales that year alone. By the end of 2018, Juul weighed in at $38 billion in value, which is more than the Ford Motor Company is worth in its entirety.
Smoke ‘em if You’ve Got ‘em
In the course of Juul’s meteoric rise – from 2016 to 2018 – the number of nonsmoking adults in the United States who latched onto e-cigarettes doubled, which translates to about 6 million converts to e-cigs. Federal health surveys also indicate that, during this time, millions of high school students turned their sights to vaping. If you are not sitting down for the next statistic coming your way, you should be – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with the Food and Drug Administration, put out a joint report that shares the following:
One out of every four high school students in the United States now vapes.
One out of every ten middle school students in the United States now vapes.
Sadly, nicotine is not only a drug but is also a highly addictive drug that interferes with the developing brains of children. And once they start, many young people find quitting especially challenging.
Hitting Social Media Hard
From the beginning, Juul has leaned heavily on social media for its marketing campaigns, which begs the question of why they failed to notice all the teen chatter about their products on the very social media platforms they were invading. Even a cursory glance at social media in Juul’s infancy is enough to seal the deal – it does not take a giant leap of faith to put two and two together for this one. Juul, however, remained blissfully ignorant. Consider the following sampling offered by the New York Times to get an idea of how deep teen devotion ran as far back as 2015:
petition to make our school mascot a juul
HAPPY 16th BIRTHDAY, LEXI T!!! I hope ur day is filled with juuling & having the best day ever (2016)
Horizon highschool, every1 is juuling in the bathroom (2016)
Somewhere along the way, Juul’s standard of excellence, such as it is, got lost in the shuffle.
Leaping forward to 2021
In June of this year, Juul Labs settled a North Carolina lawsuit (according to The New York Times) – one of many against it claiming that the company’s marketing practices spawned rampant nicotine addiction among America’s youth and have single-handedly kicked off a public health crisis – for $40 million. By settling, Juul avoids a dreaded jury trial in which the 12 men and women (many of whom would no doubt be parents) would carefully consider Juul’s antics and would potentially come down much harder on the upstart company.
In the meantime, the Food and Drug Administration is poised to provide a final say on whether vaping products will be allowed to remain on the market. In fact, Juul could be in for some hard truths. While Juul has one trial down, there are 13 other states with lawsuits of their own that are clamoring for their day in court. The premise behind each and every one of these cases is that Juul knew that it was luring teenagers into nicotine addiction with invitingly flavored pods containing highly concentrated nicotine – or that Juul should have known. And really, shouldn’t Juul have known?
Shades of the Opioid Crisis
There are about 2,000 other cases that have been filed in federal courts against Juul by school districts, counties, cities, and others. These have been melded into legislation over multiple districts that is being overseen by one federal judge – in much the same way legislation has been levied against prescription opioid companies and retailers. Beyond this, a phalanx made up of 39 attorneys general from across the country has been investigating Juul’s sales practices and marketing schemes for more than a year now.
Without an Admission of Guilt
The North Carolina attorney general announced the settlement cited above with For years, Juul targeted young people, including teens, with highly addictive e-cigarettes . . . It lit the spark and fanned the flames of a vaping epidemic among our children – one that you can see in any high school in North Carolina. Juul, however, reached the settlement in question without actually admitting to the allegations made against it, which helps it maintain its stance of not knowing in the face of cascading lawsuits coming it's way. The following quote from one of the company’s spokespeople says it all (and pays homage to the fine art of doublespeak in the process): This settlement is consistent with our ongoing effort to reset our company and its relationship with our stakeholders, as we continue to combat underage usage and advance the opportunity for harm reduction for adult smokers. Suffice to say that Juul is deeply entrenched in its own party line.
The Upshot of the North Carolina Case
The settlement out of North Carolina includes all the following stipulations:
The funds will be used to pay for programs that research e-cigarettes, help people quit e-cigarettes, and help prevent e-cigarette addiction.
Juul is now required to sell its products from behind the counter when sold in North Carolina.
Juul is required to use a third-party age verification system for all online sales.
Juul must send out at least 1,000 young mystery shoppers a year throughout the state of North Carolina to help ensure that establishments are not selling to minors.
Juul is prohibited from using models who are younger than 35 years old in all advertisements in the state, and no advertisements can be posted near schools.
What the Future Holds
Those in the legal know believe this case’s settlement bodes well for those cases that are to come. While the FDA was slated to make a decision on whether or not it will allow Juul and other e-cigarette companies to continue marketing vape materials for adults who are attempting to quit smoking in September, this date has been pushed out. Industry insiders predict that this decision will strengthen the company’s position for the many lawsuits that are pending. Settlements are expensive, however, and Juul's profits – though privately held – are thought to be on the downswing. Looking at the matter with a jaundiced eye, you might be tempted to think that Juul was riding the lucrative wave of addicting teens before the feds caught up.