Raja smokes out JUUL on teen marketing
E-cigarette firm faces House subcommittee probe into efforts to hook teen smokers
By Ted Cox
An Illinois congressman has opened a probe into whether the maker of a leading e-cigarette is trying to hook teen smokers.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg announced this week that he was opening an investigation into the marketing practices of the JUUL e-cigarette in his role as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy.
In an open letter to JUUL Labs Chief Executive Officer Kevin Burns, Krishnamoorthi charged: “Stanford University researchers have concluded, in a report published earlier this year, that JUUL’s marketing strategy from the company’s 2015 debut to 2018 was ‘patently youth oriented.’ If the Stanford researchers are correct, then JUUL intentionally sought to profit at the expense of the health of American children.”
According to the letter, “The U.S. surgeon general, the former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services have declared that e-cigarette use among teenagers is an epidemic,” and “all squarely pointed to JUUL as a primary cause of that epidemic.”
Krishnamoortho cited data from the CDC showing that “tobacco use among high-school students has increased nearly 40 percent in the past year — an increase fueled by e-cigarette use. In 2018, over 20 percent of teenagers reported e-cigarette use — a 78 percent increase from 2017 figures. In addition, in 2018, nearly 5 percent of middle-schoolers reported e-cigarette use — a 48 percent surge since 2017.” He pointedly noted that “JUUL accounts for 75 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette market.”
The subcommittee chairman demanded that JUUL submit a variety of documents on its marketing practices and the development of products like its flavored “pods,” as well as on “how and why JUUL decided to market products in the United States at the 5 percent nicotine level in the United States rather than other, lower nicotine levels.” He also requested a list of where JUUL has advertised in the media.
It’s a sensitive issue for the e-cigarette manufacturer, which issued a statement saying: “We share the subcommittee’s concerns about youth vaping and welcome the opportunity to share information about our aggressive, industry-leading actions to combat youth usage. We strongly advocate for Tobacco 21 legislation, we stopped the sale of non-tobacco and non-menthol-based-flavored JUULPods to our traditional retail store partners, enhanced our online age-verification process, strengthened our retailer compliance program with over 2,000 secret shopper visits per month, and shut down our Facebook and Instagram accounts while working relentlessly to remove inappropriate social media content generated by others on those platforms. Finally, we continue to develop technologies to further restrict underage access. We look forward to a productive dialogue as we continue to combat youth usage and help adult smokers switch from combustible cigarettes, which remain the leading cause of preventable death around the world.”
JUUL insists it is trying to wean smokers off cigarettes to a safer form of tobacco. Critics charge, however, that the conveniences of so-called vaping and the flavored “pods” used in e-cigarettes are actually meant to hook a new generation on addictive nicotine rather than to curtail all smoking.
Teen use was mentioned prominently in the General Assembly passing a bill to raise the illinois smoking age to 21, signed into law by Gov. Pritzker in April and slated to take effect in July. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has also joined colleagues in charging that JUUL is “hooking an entire new generation of children on your tobacco products in order to increase your profit margins.” Durbin also cited how Altria, corporate owner of the “kid-popular Marlboro brand” of cigarettes, recently bought a 35 percent ownership stake in JUUL, “which appears to create a clear customer pipeline for the tobacco giant.”
JUUL has countered that its research shows that flavored tobacco products help smokers to quit. CEO Burns also countered with a recent op-ed piece printed in the Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina stating: “Combatting youth use is critical for the success of our business. Our market is the over 1 million smokers in North Carolina and one billion worldwide who should have the opportunity to switch to vapor products if they so desire. We are seeing tremendous success so far as we believe our product is driving historic change in the consumption of combustible cigarettes,” quickly adding, “But we know that underage use endangers this incredible opportunity.”
Instead, he tried to turn attention to JUUL’s competitors, suggesting, “We urge government agencies across the country to act against counterfeit, knockoff, and other illegal vapor products, which are often made with unknown ingredients, with unknown quality standards, and with youth-appealing flavors and packaging.”
Critics call that a smokescreen, and Krishnamoorthi’s probe in the House subcommittee is intended to clear away the smoke and see things for what they really are.