On February 12, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey joined the fight against the vape epidemic as she filed a lawsuit against the e-cigarette company, Juul. She claims that Juul has specifically marketed their product towards underage youth, essentially getting them hooked on nicotine while still underage. Healey and her home state of Massachusetts is not alone in this suit. California, New York and Illinois all filed similar suits at the end of 2019, bringing misgivings about Juul into the limelight.
At its origin, Juul, created by two former smokers named Adam Bowen and James Monsees, was designed in order to help smokers quit cigarettes. When they determined that there was no “true alternative” to cigarettes, they switched to the next best thing: electronic cigarettes that produced similar amounts of vaporized nicotine without the extensive list of toxic ingredients in cigarettes. Introduced on the market in 2015, Juul was an instant success. It quickly became the most used brand of e-cigarette in America due to its sleek features and various flavors—the most popular of which, according to smokeshop owner Erik Pye, are mango and mint.
Another reason why Juul gained so much traction is its appeal to the younger generation. Many wonder why this is the case. The key to Healey’s lawsuit and many others like it, is that Juul’s advertisements featured young models and recruited social media influencers to promote their product. Many argue that those included in these promotions looked much too young. The implication of this would be a message to people everywhere that this product was for everyone, especially the young who wanted to be trendy by mimicking the practices of their favorite influencer. In a court hearing, Healey pointed out photos of the “Vaporized Campaign”––photos used for the launch of Juul back in 2015––featured brightly colored images of young models posing with their Juul. She argued that they sent the wrong message, saying, “Look at the people who are using these products. See, this isn’t about getting adults to stop smoking cigarettes, it’s about getting young people to start vaping.” Instead of providing a product that would help smokers quit cigarettes, Juul was creating an opening for more of them.
Another key feature of Healey’s lawsuit is that the company bought advertising space on countless websites aimed at teens and kids, including Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, neither of which appeal to Juul’s stated target demographic. More allegations were made that Juul went so far as to advise underage customers on ways to get around age restrictions for buying their product. “Over and over we’ve heard Juul say that it came to market to offer a device that was an alternative to cigarettes, and in fact would even help adults switch and stop smoking… our investigation showed that that was not true,” Healy said of the brand in light of all evidence brought forward.
All of this comes after the Trump administration announced at the beginning of the year that it would ban the sale of all flavors of vape products other than tobacco and menthol, a move that explicitly targeted younger consumers of vape products. Many are calling this action too little too late. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that from 2011 to 2019, the amount of middle schoolers who had used e-cigarettes within the last thirty days jumped from 0.6 percent to 10.5 percent. The statistics for high schoolers are even more drastic with an increase from 1.5 percent to 27.5 percent in those eight years. Needless to say, young people have already gotten hooked on vaping. A simple ban on the tropical flavors that made Juul popular won’t cause a dramatic reversal of a new teen culture and possible addictions that have been in the making for years. Healey’s lawsuit is another reminder that the younger generation is a product of what it is immersed in. Vaping poses serious consequences, and whether we care to admit it, companies like Juul are profiting from getting young consumers hooked on their product, the effects of which are not all known.We need to pay attention to what is being commercialized among the demographic and call out companies like Juul that are capitalizing on unhealthy trends that have made their way into mainstream teenage culture. Those with the power to affect real change need to ensure that young consumers aren’t caught in marketing ploys for the very sake of following a trend.