A new case against Juul Labs is the latest in a series of missteps for the slowly-flailing company that's blamed for perpetuating a vaping crisis among young people in the US. This time, Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey presents perhaps the most damning evidence to date that the company did in fact target young people with its marketing when first launching in 2015.
“Juul knew it was selling to kids,” said Healey in a news conference on Wednesday, announcing the lawsuit against the company. “They plastered the internet.” The "selling to kids" Healey is referring to specifically points to new evidence that the company placed strategised advertisements that would attract minors.
According to released court records, Juul Labs purchased ad space on several websites aimed at teens and children including Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Seventeen magazine, as well as educational sites meant for middle school and high school students. The lawsuit alleges that Juul was originally presented with a marketing proposal by a hired firm called Cult Collective that clearly defined their target audience as adult smokers. The ads showed outdated tech, popular in the 80s, with a picture of a Juul product and the slogan “Smoking Evolved.” But that advertisement never came to fruition.
Juul reportedly rejected the marketing proposal in favour of hiring their own in-house team to create a more youth-oriented campaign with the tagline “Vaporised.” The “Vaporised” ads showed more younger-looking models against bright, colourful backdrops that might appeal to a more millennial or Gen Z audience. According to a Buzzfeed report, Juul employees — and even its board of directors — claim they expressed concern that the models looked too young, but that the campaign moved forward regardless.
Nevertheless, Juul Labs decided to move forward with the ads, placing them in front of young people with both network and print strategies. Internal documents show the extent to which the company went to market directly to young people, playing a significant role in sparking the teen vaping crisis. In 2018, a spokesperson for Juul told the New York Times that the original ad campaign was aimed at adults in their 20s and 30s and insisted that it was abandoned after five months in the fall of 2015. The lawsuit claims that was not the case and that Juul continued to reach out to underage users after it claimed to have abandoned the campaign.
“The information that we uncovered in our investigation demonstrates Juul’s intent – they didn’t accidentally create an advertising campaign with young and attractive people – that’s what they were going for all along,” said Healey. Massachusetts is among a number of states including Arizona, California, Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, as well as the District of Columbia to sue Juul over their marketing practices.
Juul also allegedly marketed to underage people by email. The company collected hundreds of thousands of emails on their website. In the summer of 2017, Juul asked an independent company to check 420,000 addresses from its mailing list. In the end, 83% of the overall list couldn’t be matched to people who were 18 or older, reports the NYT. Still, Juul reportedly kept sending marketing emails to that list for another year. When the Washington Post published an article outing Juul for its email list, only then did the company add a requirement for each email to pass an age-verification process.
The last, and maybe most damning piece of evidence in the lawsuit accuses Juul of knowingly shipping e-cigarettes to consumers who gave student email addresses associated with Massachusetts high schools. Some even gave obviously fake names. In one instance, a Juul customer service email advised an underage customer how to get around age restrictions. “The legal age to purchase nicotine products in Milton, Mass. is 21 years old and above,” the support email sent in February 2018 reads. “If you have friends or relatives in Quincy, Mass., you may use their address as a shipping address for your order.”
Juul, and the entire e-cigarette industry, has been struggling with its public image ever since studies began to emerge that vaping was disproportionately attracting teens and new, young smokers. Juul and its competitors have until May to apply to FDA approval if they want to stay on the market. One major consideration the FDA will address is whether Juul can keep underage children from buying its products.