Juul, the nation’s dominant maker and seller of vaping devices, may want to deny it looks, acts, or models itself after Big Tobacco. A U.S. House subcommittee, however, has caught the San Francisco-based company in one of the prime profit-boosting practices of its health-killing precursor: targeting young users.
Though it insists it neither wants nor has it sought older teens as its customers, Juul spent tens of thousands of dollars and campaigned in recent months with what was purported to be a health education curriculum to reach out to show itself in most favorable fashion to young people in schools, summer camps, and youth programs, House investigators assert.
They told U.S. representatives on the economic and consumer policy subcommittee that they reviewed 55,000 documents to determine that “Juul operated a division that persuaded schools to allow the company to present its programming to students and paid the schools in several instances at least $10,000 to gain access to students during classes, summer school and weekend programs. The effort ended last fall and involved about a half dozen schools and youth program,” the Washington Post reported.
The New York Times reported that Juul paid a Baltimore group “$134,000 to set up a five-week summer camp to teach children healthy lifestyles. The curriculum was created by Juul — maker of the very vaping devices that were causing the most alarm among parents.” The newspaper also noted that, “In Richmond, Calif. last year, Juul gave the Police Activities League $90,000 to offer the company’s vaping education program ‘Moving Beyond’ to middle school and high school students who faced suspension for using cigarettes.”
These latest findings undercut Juul’s efforts to avert further oversight and restriction on sales of its products, chiefly a device that heats up nicotine-containing liquids to produce a vapor that users inhale. Advocates of so-called e-cigarettes say they are safer than traditional cigarettes because they do not expose users to toxins created when tobacco is burned. They argue for vaping, saying that it provides a way for adult smokers to reduce their risk and even to kick their cigarette habits.
But parents, teachers, doctors, medical scientists, and public health officials have raised big concerns because vaping devices have become a teen obsession, and they can deliver far higher doses of highly addictive nicotine than can burning tobacco. Nicotine, research already has shown, also can be harmful to developing young brains and bodies.
Addiction experts also have told the Washington Post that they are growing convinced that untold numbers of young vapers may be setting themselves up for major damage “less like tobacco users and more like patients with substance-abuse disorders.” As the newspaper explained:
“Some young people have resorted to stealing from their parents or selling e-cigarette paraphernalia to support their habits, addiction treatment specialists said. And even though many teens assume e-cigarettes are safe, some turn up with signs of nicotine toxicity, a condition previously seen in young children who accidentally ingested nicotine gum. Others are reporting [significant] respiratory problems.”
Juul officials call their teen targeted advertising, marketing, and sales a “misstep” and say they have moved to curtail these.
James Monsees, a company co-founder (shown, above, and clean-shaven from a YouTube video), told lawmakers that Juul “has pulled most of its flavored products out of retail stores last fall,” the Washington Post reported, adding, “he said that Juul never wanted young people to use its vaping products. Juul isn’t Big Tobacco.”
The newspaper quoted Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, replying to Monsees, with the Walnut Creek, Calif., Democrat, calling him “an example of the worst of the Bay Area. You don’t ask for permission, you ask for forgiveness. You’re nothing but a marketer of a poison, and your target is young people.”
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the importance of their avoiding such damage as much as possible by staying as far as they can from getting into the U.S. health care system. This includes avoiding smoking, a proven and leading cause of multiple cancers, heart and lung disease, and other awful health conditions. If you don’t smoke, please don’t start. If you can keep your kids from smoking or vaping, that’s also a wise course.
It isn’t easy, of course, because Juul, in particular, has demonstrated a mastery of old and new tricks to hook users, particularly the young. Even before regulators awoke to the firm’s efforts, Juul and its cousins tapped social media, powerful imagery, and online “influencers” to build the firm into a profit-churning powerhouse. Officials may deny their wish to emulate Big Tobacco. But who are they kidding? They are a part of queasy empire, having sold off part of the company to a Big Tobacco firm that also has bought into a legal marijuana enterprise.
Vaping and e-cigarettes could not have flourished as they have, of course, were it not for the sleepy inaction of federal regulators, notably the Food and Drug Administration and Scott Gottlieb, its pro-business former commissioner and a onetime board member of an e-cigarette concern. He asserted that the FDA needed to rethink its tobacco-combatting efforts, focusing more on reducing nicotine addiction to help curtail cigarette use and abuse. That also meant that he postponed a crackdown on e-cigarettes and vaping, a plan that Obama Administration officials had fought tooth and nail to get in place before President Trump got in office and installed Gottlieb.
While the FDA dithered, Juul blew up as teen fad that shows little sign of abating, despite the head-spinning reversal that Gottlieb and other Trump officials made about vaping and e-cigarettes, including a lot of jawing and ordering restrictions on the material to the young.
Dr. Norman “Ned” Sharpless, Gottlieb’s successor, promised to bust Juul and other vaping outfits as health menaces. But Sharpless, named by Trump in April, is an interim commissioner still, and he has not shown Gottlieb’s tendency to take to social media or to cultivate traditional media, in public health causes.
So, Congress members, take up and keep up the cause: We need to attack Big Tobacco and vaping concerns (whether they’re differentiated or the same) to unhook grownups and youthful users — and to ensure that this health scourge does not metastasize into yet another generation