FDA investigating JUUL e-cigarette for targeting youth

An example of JUUL’s early marketing. The bright colors and young models make the ad appealing to youth.

JUUL, the company that makes the wildly popular e-cigarette with the same name, is under investigation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Massachusetts Attorney General for targeting youth. JUUL launched in 2015, and the $16 billion company now controls more than 70 percent of the e-cigarette market share. The brand is very popular with high school students. In recent months, the company has come under scrutiny for its marketing practices. In particular, many of the early JUUL ads were colorful and featured young models. In addition, marketing materials focused heavily on youth-friendly flavored products such as “cool cucumber” and “crème brulee.” There is also concern that the company didn’t sufficiently ensure those who purchased the products online were of legal age. The FDA ordered JUUL to turn over company marketing and scientific reports in order to help the FDA determine if JUUL specifically targeted youth. In mid-September, the FDA took it one step further. The FDA put JUUL and three other e-cigarette companies (Vuse made by R.J. Reynolds, blu made by Imperial Brands, and Logic brand) on notice that they have 60 days to prove they have the systems in place to ensure young people can’t access these products. Failure to do so could result in the removal of these products from the market.

In response to FDA criticism, JUUL has taken several measures. First, going forward they will only feature models 35 years and older in marketing materials. They also don’t plan to highlight flavors in company ads. JUUL also launched a youth tobacco prevention “curriculum” for schools. The curriculum is based on teaching students mindfulness techniques. The company sent a letter to school administrators across the country offering the curriculum. To many, the offer seems a bit deceptive and is reminiscent of a tobacco industry tactic. Tobacco companies have a long history of developing tobacco curricula. Research indicates these curricula are ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst (i.e. they might actually encourage youth tobacco use). JUUL responded to this criticism by saying company executives were unaware that tobacco companies have a history of offering curricula. However, at least one member of JUUL’s Board of Directors also served on the Board of one of the largest smokeless tobacco companies.

The future of JUUL and the outcome of the investigation of company marketing practices is unknown. In the meantime, JUUL’s popularity continues to rise with adults and youth alike.

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