It’s no longer a secret that JUUL, the top-selling vape maker in the world, built its $15 billion vape empire on the backs of children and teens by aggressively marketing its products to a fresh generation of nonsmokers. But now there is evidence that JUUL devised other sales strategies to build its vaping empire, including ramping up levels of nicotine in its pods to get kids addicted faster and stronger than ever.

Before 2015, the majority of vape products came in concentrations of 1 percent or 2 percent nicotine. But when JUUL hit the market in 2015, it introduced pods with a 5 percent nicotine concentration, delivering an amount of nicotine in a single cartridge equal to a pack of conventional cigarettes.

With nicotine levels more than double most other vape companies and three times higher than the level legally allowed in the UK, Israel and many other countries, JUUL immediately turned to Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms with ads that packed a lot of adolescent appeal. JUUL also propagated its image and products using videos and sponsorships that often went viral online among children, teens and young adults.

According to research published in the BMJ journal Tobacco Control, JUUL was able to make nicotine more palatable by developing a patented “nicotine salt” that diminished the chemical’s bitter flavor. This allowed JUUL users to vape significantly higher quantities of nicotine without having to endure nicotine’s bitter taste.

juul pods flavors 375x210 JUUL triggered Nicotine Arms Race in vaping industry, study findsJUUL also made pods containing 3 percent nicotine, but those are available only in mint and tobacco flavors, which are mostly preferred by adults. JUUL pods containing higher concentrations of nicotine are available in a range of fruity flavors that appeal more to kids.

JUUL’s introduction of 5-percent nicotine pods also triggered a nicotine “arms race” in the U.S. as other vape companies scrambled to compete, the Tobacco Control researchers explained. Competitors were not just increasing the nicotine levels in their own vape products to match JUUL, many of them sought to outdo the leading vape maker by exceeding the nicotine level of JUUL in their own products.

Affordability is another key strategy JUUL used to capture the youth market. The rate of conventional tobacco smoking among youths dropped to record levels in recent years, thanks in part to the prohibitive cost of regular cigarettes.

Whereas a pack of conventional smokes can cost as much as $15 in some places, the equivalent amount of vape pods costs about one-tenth that much, according to CNBC. That makes vaping a bargain for cash-strapped kids, teens and young adults.

“The rush to higher and higher nicotine concentration has reduced the cost of nicotine addiction,” Dr. Robert Jackler, founder of Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising and author of the BMJ study told CNN.

Dr. Jackler also noted that the high concentrations of nicotine in pods made by JUUL and other manufacturers present “a huge poisoning risk” to children. Some bottles of the liquid contain enough nicotine to kill an entire preschool class, he said, adding that the surge in vaping has been accompanied by a rise in calls to poison control centers.

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