Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)

Juul says that it has aggressively attempted to curb the use of its products by teens amid ongoing pressure from the Food and Drug Administration, but teens may have made up a significant percentage of the brand’s social following on Twitter in 2018, according to a new report.

The study, published at the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Pediatrics on Monday, looked at data from the official Juul account during April of last year and found that an estimated 44.9 percent of the public accounts following the brand belonged to users between 13 and 17 years old. Roughly 80 percent of the public accounts following Juul belonged to users between the ages of 13 and 20, which is still under the legal age to purchase tobacco products in some parts of the U.S.

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“As sales of e-cigarettes have increased exponentially in recent years, and vaping becomes more popular among the nation’s youth, these study results represent an emerging public health issue by highlighting how young people can be easily exposed to social media marketing messages of new tobacco products,” lead author Annice Kim, Ph.D., RTI International senior health scientist and director of Health Media Impact and Digital Analytics Program, said in a statement.

Youth vaping has skyrocketed in recent years, and Kim said that social media companies need better age-restrictive policies in place to help ensure that products meant for adults are not being marketed to teens.

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In a statement to Gizmodo, a spokesperson for Juul said by email that the company questions the methodology behind the research, claiming that it “differs significantly” from data made available to Juul through Twitter’s own tools and CX Social by Clarabridge. According to the company, data from May of last year showed that just 3.9 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 were following its Twitter.

“Twitter does not allow automatic age-gating. At the time of the author’s study, we had a team at JUUL Labs that proactively, manually blocked underage users from following our Twitter feed. We do everything we can to prevent youth from engaging our company on Twitter and, as noted above, do not advertise or promote JUUL products through our account,” the spokesperson said, adding that the company also works to scrub third-party content promoting its products to youth from social media.

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The study authors did not immediately return a request for comment about their research.

Juul has been accused in multiple reports as well as by the FDA’s former Commissioner Scott Gottlieb of marketing its products to teens, driving what is now described as an “epidemic” of kids hooked on vaping products ostensibly intended (if Juul is to be taken at its word) for cessation. As part of its “action plan” to curb youth use of its products, Juul last year scrubbed its social media of the hip, edgy, and youthful marketing that—together with its fruity flavors and USB-like design—may have helped it catch on with a young demographic. Juul also altogether shut down many of its social accounts and says it uses Twitter exclusively for “non-promotional communications.”

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Be that as it may, this week’s study is not the first to report that a significant number of youth may be engaging with the brand’s remaining social media presence. A year-long analysis of Juul tweets from researchers with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine published last year at the Journal of Adolescent Health found that one in four public accounts that retweeted the company appeared to belong to teens younger than 18.

In a statement at the time, lead study author Kar-Hai Chu, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine in Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health, said that Juul claims it’s “not trying to target adolescents with their advertising or sales, but our research clearly indicates that a sizeable proportion of their Twitter audience is exactly this population.”

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