At a time when public scrutiny surrounding e-cigarettes is rising, Juul has been accused of marketing e-cigarettes to children on school grounds. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States has demanded extensive documentation of Juul’s marketing practices and safety claims.
The alleged case of marketing to children was brought to public attention during a Congressional hearing in July. The opportunity for this to occur at all was a “mental health/addiction” seminar, attended by a child named Caleb Mintz, and a friend who had become addicted to vaping. At the time of the incident, they were in the 9th grade.
To encourage the kids to speak openly, the seminars are held without teachers in the room. During this time a Juul representative was present and sent some rather mixed messages. The representative claimed that Juul’s products were entirely safe, but immediately followed up by claiming that Juul didn’t want children as customers. The rep also called Juul “the iPhone of vapes”. The rep even claimed that the FDA would soon announce that Juul was 99% safer than cigarettes, which is cruelly ironic given how the FDA reacted to hearing about all this. Mintz approached the rep afterwards to ask him for advice on how to help his friend, who was suffering from nicotine addiction, without mentioning that the friend’s main sources of nicotine were Juuls. The rep assumed the child was instead addicted to conventional cigarettes, and recommended that he switch to Juul.
It is worth wondering why Juul representatives have ended up on school grounds in the first place. As it turns out, Juul has been offering free three-hour curricula to various school administrators, with the ostensible purpose of discouraging children from vaping. Many school administrators have been suspicious, including Carrie Yantzer, the principal of Nederland Middle-Senior High School. In a New York Times piece from over a year ago, she claimed she found the efforts “preposterous” and “deceptive”. While Yantzer could clearly see that this was essentially letting a fox guard the henhouse, the administrators at Mintz’s school were apparently less savvy. This is probably to the detriment of Mintz’s classmates. On the other hand now that Juul has been caught red-handed and the possible effects of vaping are under investigation, regulators around the world have started to take notice.
On September 9th, the FDA sent a “letter of warning” to Juul, which is available for the public to peruse on the FDA website. The basic thrust of their argument is that marketing a tobacco product as being safer than the competition requires FDA certification that Juul did not receive. In addition to the incident involving marketing in a school, Juul has also been distributing pamphlets with a “message from the CEO” claiming that Juul “deliver smokers the satisfaction that they want without the combustion and the harm associated with it”. One such pamphlet was sent to a parent who complained that her child was using Juul.
Juul has until September 24th to respond to the FDA: either with “corrective actions”, or to present evidence that they have not been in violation of the law.
Not everyone is willing to sit idly by waiting for the FDA. US President Donald Trump has demanded a ban on flavored vaping products. This is perhaps one of the few announcements from the president with potential for bipartisan appeal. However, some have suggested that such measures might actually cement Juul’s place as leader of the e-cigarette industry by destroying all its smaller competitors. For what it’s worth, in the recent investigations of death and illness from vaping, Juul products have not been implicated: investigators instead suspect contaminants and counterfeit vaping products.
Meanwhile, India has banned the production, import, and advertising of vaping products. However, they have not banned people from using vapes, in the hope that present-day vapers will gradually change their habits. This ban order might be challenged in India’s courts, or be rejected by India’s parliament, so a reversal might be possible in a few months.
Juul launched sales of their product in China this month, only to have their products to disappear from stores without a trace days later. No explanation has been given to Juul: according to Juul spokesperson Victoria Davis, Juul is “steadfast in our commitment to providing the more than 300 million adult smokers in China with a viable alternative to combustible cigarettes”.
It is these adult smokers who have the most to lose from restrictions on e-cigarettes. The market pitch for these e-cigarettes has always been that they could help present-day smokers quit conventional cigarettes. Since the benefits and risks of e-cigarettes are still under research, this effect may not be as profound as originally advertised. Furthermore, even if Juul and its ilk actually assist smokers, this still leaves the most difficult question. Is it worthwhile to liberate people from their addictions, if the means of doing so create new addicts?