A 15-year-old Juul user in Cambridge, Massachusetts in April 2018.
Photo: Steven Senne (AP)

Juul, the manufacturer of the wildly popular and allegedly very addictive Juul e-cigarette, is being investigated by the Food and Drug Administration for marketing tactics the agency claims were designed to result in the nation’s ongoing teen vaping boom. According to a Monday report in the New York Times, a former senior manager at the device’s original creator PAX Labs said management was fully aware teens were buying Juuls en masse right after the product launched and did little about it.

According to the Times report, the former manager said staff were aware Juul marketing in early 2015—which featured trendy young people and banked on its hip name becoming a verb—appealed to teens. But it wasn’t for well over a year that that the company began to adjust its advertising to focus on older adults using it as a smoking-cessation product:

After Juuls went on sale in June 2015, he said, the company quickly realized that teenagers were, in fact, using them because they posted images of themselves vaping Juuls on social media.

The former manager said the company was careful to make sure the models in its original campaign were at least 21, but it wasn’t until late 2016 or January 2017 that the company said it decided the models in all Juul ads should be over age 35 — to be “better aligned” with a mission of focusing on adult smokers. Only in June of this year did the company again change its policy, this time to using only real people who had switched from cigarettes to Juul.

Both the FDA and the attorney general of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, are now investigating Juul Labs, which was spun off of PAX Labs in 2017. The FDA wants to see Juul’s internal user statistics and turn over documents on marketing and product design. Per the Times, a major focus of Healey’s investigation is whether Juul staff properly audited its own website and that of third-party retailers to prevent the devices from being sold to those younger than 18, in violation of federal law.

“From our perspective, this is not about getting adults to stop smoking,” Healey told the paper. “This is about getting kids to start vaping, and make money and have them as customers for life.”

Company spokesperson Matt David countered to the paper that the original marketing strategy was in fact ineffective, and sales didn’t take off until 2017, when they had a different ad campaign in place. However, the Times also wrote the former manager knew people were buying Juuls in bulk for resale purposes, and later knew beyond a doubt many of those bulk-sold Juuls were ending up in the hands of underage users:

“First, they just knew it was being bought for resale,” said the former senior manager, who was briefed on the company’s business strategy. “Then, when they saw the social media, in fall and winter of 2015, they suspected it was teens.”

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It’s also only recently that Juul changed the name of some of its flavors to sound less like candy, the Times added, with the company itself conceding that teens might have been more attracted to flavors previously named “crème brûlée” and “cool cucumber.”

Part of Juul’s defense is the claim it has converted one million smokers to vaping. Scientific research has currently indicated vaping is less harmful to adults than cigarettes but, like any product that delivers nicotine, may have deleterious impacts on young peoples’ brain development. There is less evidence to suggest e-cigarettes actually lead to smoking cessation, and some to suggest teens who use them are more likely to pick up smoking habits in the future. It’s also unclear what the long-term impacts of vaping could be, as it’s a pretty recent phenomena.

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Juul’s one million statistic is based on internal data that the Times noted is “drawn from self-reported surveys on its website and is unverifiable.” Juul appears to pay out a hefty amount of money for at least some users to participate in these studies. For example, the writer of this article has been enrolled in a program that doles out one $30 Visa gift every month for regular survey participation since purchasing a starter kit direct from the Juul web site in May 2018. (Gizmodo has reached out to Juul Labs for comment on its survey data.) In any case, market data suggests that recent decreases in the number of smokers has been largely fueled by more users picking up products like Juul.

Juul Labs has been hit by several lawsuits claiming that it marketed the devices as safe while they are in fact uniquely addictive, as they are designed to provide stronger doses of nicotine than traditional cigarettes. It was only earlier this year that the company began selling pods with lower nicotine content than five percent (each pod being the equivalent of a full pack of 20 cigarettes), launching some flavors with three percent nicotine in July 2018, according to CNBC.

According to the Times, current FDA chief Scott Gottlieb—a former board member of a company that sold vaping products—told the paper regulators must “recognize the potential for innovation to lead to less harmful products.” Gottlieb’s FDA is allegedly investigating a plan to potentially require traditional cigarette manufacturers reduce nicotine to non-addictive levels, which could greatly benefit the vaping industry. However, when the FDA’s investigation began in April, Gottlieb said the “viability of these products is severely undermined if those products entice youth to start using tobacco and nicotine.”

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Juul is currently worth around $16 billion, according to investor estimates cited by the Times.

[New York Times]