Two male college students stand at a party. The lights are dim and music blasts through the small, off campus house, drowning out most attempts at conversation. Straining my ears, I manage to make out the details of their conversation.
They are discussing e-cigarettes. One has been vaping intermittently for a better part of the hour we’ve been talking. The other reaches into his pocket to retrieve his JUUL. They talk about the hassle of refilling vape pods and compare their own devices.
Both smoked cigarettes before vaping.
“I started smoking cigarettes when I was fifteen” says one guy.
E-cigarette use has become a major public health issue in recent years. The FDA’s 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that there has been a 78 percent increase in high school e-cigarette use since 2017, and a 48 percent increase for middle schoolers . These statistics appear to undo the work of years of anti-tobacco advertising campaigns directed at kids. The extreme increase in youth e-cigarette users has become so worrisome to the FDA that on Nov. 13, the e-cigarette company JUUL caved to pressure and stopped the sale of flavored e-cig pods in retail stores .
Because many young e-cigarette users were not smokers previously, they are largely unaware of the effects and impact of a nicotine addiction. Youth use of e-cigarettes is strongly linked to attractive flavorings like mango and crème brule, with 31 percent of youth users stating that flavors such as mint, candy, fruit, or chocolate were the reason for their use. Ironically, the chemicals used to flavor e-cigs are one of the main contributors to the dangers of the devices.
“Currently, we are told that e-cigs have less carcinogens, but they have some carcinogens,” says Dr. Chrysan Cronin, Director and Assistant Professor of Public Health at Muhlenberg. “There are no safe levels of carcinogens. In addition, the chemical flavorings used in e-cigs, such as diacetyl and acetoin are known to be harmful to humans. Metabolites of benzene and other harmful chemicals have been found in the urine of people who vape. Heavy metals from the heating coils such as cadmium and nickel are inhaled when using e-cigs.”
But 17.1 percent of youth users are either unaware or unconcerned with these dangers and believe that e-cigarettes “are less harmful than other forms of tobacco such as cigarettes.”
“JUULs are the new “cigarette”– the new public health problem,” says Cronin. “The marketers of JUULs specifically made their e-cigs to appeal to a young, teenage audience. They also make vaping fluid in flavors that appeal to children. They added nicotine to the fluid, an addictive substance to be sure they hooked kids on their product early.”
Cronin is speaking not only to the stylish nature of the JUUL itself, which is sleek and mimics the look of a USB drive, but to the early marketing campaigns JUUL created in 2015 and 2016. In June of 2015, the advertising news magazine, Ad Age reported on JUUL’s new marketing campaign called “Vaporize” which featured young, stylish people using JUULs in front of a colorful graphic design. These advertisements were emblazoned on 12 billboards in Times Square and in various magazines. Adding to the campaign were “JUUL bars,” physical locations showcasing the devices.
The overwhelmingly youth-oriented marketing strategy from 2015 is in stark contrast with JUUL’s current imagery. Their website uses only black and white lettering, and displays a large banner at the top of the page stating “WARNING: This product contains nicotine.
Nicotine is an addictive chemical.”
Additionally, JUUL has a webpage that outlines what they call a “Marketing & Social Media Code” and claims: “We adhere to strict guidelines to ensure that our marketing is directed toward existing adult smokers.”
“We share public health concerns about cigarettes; in fact, they constitute our company’s mission. We did not create JUUL to undermine years of effective tobacco control, and we do not want to see a new generation of smokers,” is displayed prominently on their site.
These changes, prompted by the FDA’s recent crackdown on e-cigarette marketing, shows the company’s obvious efforts to resist public criticism. In 2015, e-cigarettes were not regulated in the same way that combustible ones were. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama on June 22, 2009, restricts tobacco marketing and sales to youth, but did not regulate the marketing of e-cigarettes.
The marketing and overall sleek design of JUULs likely had a powerful effect on young people when the product was first introduced. The damage done from the initial advertising campaign is irreversible; young people who saw the ads at an early age, have become nicotine addicts, and despite new restrictions, the ‘cool factor’ of the devices perseveres.
When JUUL stopped selling flavored nicotine pods, they also stopped using their social media accounts. Their Instagram account in particular, displayed pictures of JUULs and pods displayed alongside desserts and coffee in the style of food photography. It showed JUULs alongside sunglasses and books, casually displayed like a new accessory.
JUUL’s use of social media, technology that preoccupies many young peoples’ lives, shows how makers of nicotine products directed their marketing to attract young people, and use media to gain a possible customer for life.
While the FDA’s new regulations may help curb the new epidemic of youth e-cigarette users lured by attractive marketing campaigns and product design, there is definitely more work to be done in controlling these companies’ marketing of an addictive substance.
E-cigarette users like the students I met at the party, are being led to this attractive alternative as a smoking cessation tool instead of other effective ones like nicotine gum or patches, and they have joined the millions of other young people addicted to the devices as smokers of the past have been. As Dr. Cronin warns: “It is just as difficult to quit vaping as it is to quit smoking.”