Marketed as a healthier alternative to cigarettes and a means by which to quit smoking altogether, the growth of e-cigarettes skyrocketed in just a few years. Operated by batteries, these devices emit vapors that contain nicotine, flavorings, and other chemicals.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), there are more than 460 e-cigarette brands that are currently on the market. Commercial e-cigarettes were invented in 2003 by Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist, who allegedly created the device after watching his father, a heavy smoker, die of lung cancer.
However, by 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) dismissed the belief that e-cigarettes aided smoking cessation. WHO also demanded that marketing material that claimed as much be removed. Subsequently, Ruyan, the company that manufactured and sold Lik’s invention, funded its own study claiming that the carcinogens and toxins found in their products were below harmful levels. After bans in several countries, the concerns of scientists and medical professionals weren’t enough to curb the continual rise and development of this product.
According to the United States Surgeon General, vaping is an epidemic among minors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also cautioned the public against vaping, as illnesses associated with the habit become more apparent. Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that the kind of chemicals found in vape pens and their overall long-term effects on health are still unknown. What they do know is that its main ingredient, nicotine, is harmful to health as it spikes blood pressure and increases the risk of heart attack.
Furthermore, vaping is just as addictive as traditional smoking – some research suggests that nicotine is just as addictive as heroin or cocaine. What’s more, individuals who vape have the option of buying extra-strength nicotine cartridges or adjusting the voltage on their pens so that they ingest more of the substance per hit.
As of 2019, Juul Labs dominates the e-cigarette market, controlling 70 percent of it three years after the company’s launch. Similarly to Lik, the brand’s creators were former cigarette smokers. On its website, Juul markets itself as “a smoking alternative for adults.”
Juul devices, resembling USB drives, seem most popular among teenagers and young adults, so much so that these discrete devices are often found among middle schoolers. A large part of this issue is that nearly 14 percent of these children don’t know that they’re consuming nicotine, according to the NIH. Many kids and young adults alike are under the impression that vapes are just flavorful smoke and contain no addictive substances or harmful additives. Additionally, the fact that vape pens are marketed as smoking cessation tools make it easy to assume that they’re not bad for you at all.
The marketing surrounding Juul is the reason the company is under federal investigation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).While the FDA hasn’t publicly disclosed the details of its investigation, the agency accused the vaping giant of making false claims regarding the safety of its products.
The FDA determined that Juul Labs did not receive the federal green light to market its pen as an alternative to smoking. The FTC is investigating whether or not Juul Labs intentionally used influencer marketing and other digital media campaigns to appeal to minors, and believes that Juul Labs purposely marketed its products to adolescents and misled them into believing that their products were safe.
A team of researchers from the Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco advertising determined that Juul’s marketing campaign in the years between 2015 and 2018 purposely targeted the youth demographic. According to the research team’s white paper, “JUUL e-cigarette now dominates the American vapor market and had achieved cult level of popularity among school aged adolescents.”
The document also details Juul’s launch campaign and how the company featured models in their early 20s, mimicking many of the same marketing tactics of traditional tobacco. The report concludes that Juul’s mission statement to “Improve the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers” doesn’t line up with its actual marketing practices over the first three years of the company’s existence (Juul launched in 2015).
Juul Labs maintains that it has never targeted its marketing toward youth and that its products are for adult use only. As of now, the company has rebranded its visual marketing materials to only include adults over the age of 35. The company also stopped selling its flavored cartridges in brick and mortar stores, and claims to support the congressional push to make the legal purchasing age 21.
According to the NIH, 70 percent of American teenagers are exposed to e-cigarette advertisements. In 2018, the NIH also found that 37.3 percent of 12th grade high school students admitted to vaping within that past year. As of February 2019, the FDA also found that 4.9 percent of middle school students regularly vape.
The best thing parents can do to discourage their children from vaping is to be armed with information. Additionally, the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids encourages parents to listen to their kids and have open, nonjudgmental conversations about vaping, while expressing the risks and concerns associated with the practice. It’s important that young people be aware of the seriousness of nicotine addiction, and that some products, despite their enticements, simply aren’t in their best interest to use.