A coalition of U.S. Senators is demanding answers from JUUL Labs after the vape device maker announced it was teaming up with Altria, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes.
“The corporate marriage between two companies that have been the most prolific at marketing highly addictive nicotine products to children is alarming from a public health standpoint and demonstrates, yet again, that JUUL is more interested in padding its profit margins than protecting our nation’s children,” the Senators wrote.
JUUL, manufacturer of the leading vape brand among U.S. teens and children, holds 75 percent of the market.
Big Tobacco company Altria, maker of Marlboro, the most popular cigarette brand among U.S. youth, invested $12.8 billion in JUUL last month, taking a 35 percent stake and setting the companies on a path that has raised red flags with lawmakers and public health officials alike.
The 11 Senators told JUUL that “they are seeking more information regarding JUUL’s tactics to hook children on nicotine and to understand what your merger with Altria means for the public health.”
While JUUL and Altria maintain that the $38 billion partnership is intended to “prepare for a future where adult smokers overwhelmingly choose non-combustible products over cigarettes,” their product marketing and business model tell a different story.
According to CNBC, as part of the partnership deal, Altria agreed to give JUUL top-shelf space so its vaping pods are displayed alongside Altria’s Marlboro cigarettes. The deal will also help JUUL with its distribution and logistics, including through Altria’s sales organization that covers about 230,000 retail locations.
Study upon study has shown that lifetime smoking and other tobacco use almost always begins by the time kids graduate from high school. That is to say, the vast majority of people become hooked on nicotine when they are in their teens or younger.
Big tobacco and vaping product manufacturers know that that children and teens are by far their best bet for building a solid consumer base. JUUL and Altria also know that among all age groups, vape devices are most commonly used by people who use other tobacco products, including conventional cigarettes. Rather than replace cigarettes, JUUL and other vaping devices usually supplement smoking.
A 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that vape product use increases the likelihood of smoking cigarettes among young people, raising concerns that the devices are acting as entry nicotine products that may lead to use of more dangerous forms of nicotine.
Former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Scott Gottlieb launched a crusade against JUUL last year when multiple reports showed that vaping had become an epidemic among U.S. high school and middle school students. But despite the FDA’s threats to restrict and even shut down the vaping industry, JUUL and other vape manufacturers continue to thrive. The new alliance between JUUL and Altria indicates that JUUL products could be even more ubiquitous and potentially accessible to minors in the coming years.
According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), 20.8 percent of high-school students and 4.9 percent of middle-school students (more than 3.6 million kids) currently use vape products. In 2018, vaping among children increased by an alarming 78 percent in high-school students and 48 percent in middle-school students. Early estimates show this trend continuing through 2019, so the problem is only getting worse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that JUUL is driving this epidemic.
JUUL became a $15 billion company in three years by recognizing the potentially untapped youth market and taking advantage of the lack of regulations governing vaping devices in the U.S. This allowed them to target children and teens in a multitude of ways that were off-limits to Big Tobacco companies.
E-juice, the mixture of chemicals, flavoring, and nicotine that is vaporized in a vape pod, is readily available in brick-and-mortar and online vape shops in sweet flavors that appeal to children.
JUUL offers pods with eight e-juice flavors, including fruit, mango, crème, mint, and cucumber. These top-selling flavors are the most popular among children 12-19 years old. In the past, JUUL offered additional fruity flavors, such as “Silky Strawberry,” Watermelon, “Citrus Burst,” and “Pineapple Crush.” The company has pared down its kiddy flavors, but JUUL pods are easily refillable with e-juice from third-party manufacturers and vendors.
Higher nicotine content
One of the most insidious tactics JUUL took to hook kids on its vaping products was to boost the level of nicotine in its pods to 5%. Before JUUL, most vape liquids contained nicotine concentrations of 1% to 2%.
In a study published by the BMJ journal Tobacco Control, researchers found that JUUL’s introduction of 5% nicotine pods triggered a nicotine “arms race” in the U.S. as other vape companies scrambled to compete by raising the amount of nicotine in their products. In fact, some competitors were not just increasing the nicotine levels in their own vape products to match JUUL’s, many of them sought to outdo the leading vape maker by adding nicotine in concentrations higher than 5%.
While most of its flavors are now available in both 3% and 5% nicotine concentrations, JUUL’s best-selling mango flavor, the most popular among children and teens, is available only in a 5% formula.
Better tasting nicotine
Other vape companies use a chemically modified form of nicotine called “freebase nicotine,” but JUUL uses “nicotine salts” that more closely resemble the natural structure of nicotine found in tobacco leaves. This makes the nicotine taste less bitter and more readily absorbed into the bloodstream, making it easier to inhale more nicotine for longer periods of time.
Prohibitively high cigarette prices – as much as $15 a pack in some places – helped keep smokes out of the hands of many children. JUUL pods made nicotine addiction a lot more affordable. Each JUUL pod contains an amount of nicotine equivalent to a pack of cigarettes. JUUL sells four-pod packs for substantially less than what it would cost for four packs of cigarettes, and other vape liquid vendors offer their liquids at an even lower cost.
JUUL was one of the first manufacturers to make vape devices that didn’t resemble cigarettes. Instead, JUULs look like portable USB drives, allowing school-age users to hide them in plain sight and use them more conspicuously than vape pens or sticks that looked like conventional tobacco products. JUULs can also be recharged by inserting them into a USB port on a computer or other compatible device.
JUUL built its vape empire by branding itself as the cool vaping brand on social media platforms that teens and young adults use throughout the day.
“Health experts have slammed the company’s marketing tactics as following in the footsteps of Big Tobacco, which aimed advertising at young people in an effort to gain lifelong customers,” CNN reported.
Anyone who was of age in the 1990s may recall the wildly successful Joe Camel campaign R.J. Reynolds used to breathe new life into its Camel cigarettes, transforming them from a stuffy old brand into something trendy and cool, all with the help of a cartoon camel.
JUUL doesn’t use cartoons to push its products, but its paid social media influencers had the same pull with teens and young adults. The company would pay people with large Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts thousands of dollars to showcase JUUL on accounts with large followings.
JUUL devices are made in a variety of colors and users can cover them with custom skins or “vape wraps” that feature school colors and mascots, artwork, photos of animals, cartoons, and other designs.
The U.S. Senators have provided JUUL with dozens of questions related to its marketing strategies and business practices, which they say are shrouded in “immense secrecy.” The Senators are also seeking information about JUUL’s support of conservative and anti-regulation organizations that are pressuring the Trump Administration to “pump the brakes” on the FDA’s oversight efforts and its proposed actions to beat back the epidemic of teen vaping.