Last fall, Mouth of the River published “Smokescreen: Why Students Juul” in issue one of the magazine. Since that time, Juul Vapor Labs has faced national criticism for attracting an audience that has been primarily composed of underage users. Such criticisms were recently brought into a new light when it was revealed that Altria Group Inc., a major tobacco company, was interested in buying a “significant minority stake” of Juul Vapor Labs, according to “Juul Said It Would Disrupt Big Tobacco, They May Join Forces Instead” from Bloomberg.
Alongside raising concerns over the possibility for connections between Juul and cigarettes, these marketing tactics have brought forth a series of nationwide changes regarding underage nicotine usage.
From a marketing standpoint, Juul Vapor Labs has been widely successful. According to “E-Cigarette Market Juul Labs Is Raising $1.2 Billion” by Bloomberg, the company reached a net worth of $15 billion dollars in a mere three years. From a public health standpoint, however, this success has meant a dramatic increase in underage nicotine consumption.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the number of twelfth graders who used electronic cigarettes within the past month increased from 12.5 to 16.6 percent from 2016 to 2017, causing many to wonder if Juul’s rise to popularity with its enticing, fruit flavored pods were attracting use from a younger audience in this time.
To further investigate this, the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) raided Juul Labs on September 28th, 2018, seizing thousands of the company’s documents associated with marketing and sales to see if there had been any intentional underage targeting.
Two weeks later, the FDA had yet to release the findings and implications of the raid, leaving Juul Vapor to take preventative action into its own hands in order to avoid potential lawsuits and/or fines. Such legal action would have resulted if the FDA had found evidence violating the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, which attempts to, “[take] steps to protect Americans from the dangers of tobacco products, ensure these tobacco products have health warnings, and restrict sales to minors,” according to an official statement from Mitch Zeller, the director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products.
On November 13th, Kevin Burns, the CEO of Juul Labs, released a statement detailing the company’s plan moving forward. Most notably, this plan called for the company’s immediate halt on accepting orders for mango, creme brûlée, fruit medley, and cucumber pods from the 90,000 retail stores that carry Juul products in order to limit the device’s appeal to an underage audience.
The statement went on to detail that while these flavors will continue to be sold to users 21 years or older online, a monthly restriction would be implemented on both pods and devices through tracking users’ account activity. In addition, the company promised to continue to use a third party verification system, in an attempt to ensure that the website is only being accessed by adults.
On November 15th, the FDA Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, directed the Center for Tobacco Products to revisit former policies regarding the production and retail of flavored pods, calling for the decisions of Juul Labs to be reinforced by legislation change.
With Juul Vapor currently controlling 72% of the e-cigarette market according to the advertising data collected by Nielsen ratings, these updates could have major impacts, some of which, right here at Oyster River High School.
The articles referenced are linked below, in order of appearance:
As suggested by the numbers, there is reason to believe that the new supply regulation on Juul products will have a positive correlation on the decline in underage use of electronic cigarettes. However, with many students already hooked on the device, the issue of how to rebuild an addiction-free learning environment still remains.
To begin answering this question, high schools across the state have been carefully tracking the number of students who use electronic cigarettes regularly, with Oyster River being no exception. According to ORHS’ last Youth Behavior and Risk Survey, which was recorded during Juul’s growing popularity in 2017, nearly one fourth of seniors had vaped within the past 30 days.
“I think that number has since increased for both seniors and other students,” said Robert Quaglieri, the high school’s health teacher, regarding the survey’s current relevance.
In addition to this number’s increase, Quaglieri also believes that the ban on selling fruit flavored pods will not stop underage use if the teens have already become addicted. “The number of students using will most likely stay the same, because [the users] still need to have a lot of nicotine in their system if they have been using for a while.”
Quaglieri’s thoughts bring up another critical point regarding how Juul Labs was able to grow their company so quickly: the potency of their products. “One Juul pod is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes [in nicotine content]. Most users are using more than one pod in a short amount of time, so as their addiction levels become greater, the withdrawals are going to be greater, so they will still be needing to use more nicotine-based products,” he said.
One user, who remains anonymous, revealed that they would continue to use their Juul, despite the new restrictions in stores. “I don’t understand how removing fruit flavors is going to stop anyone. I’m just going to switch flavors to make sure that I can keep using,” they said.
This was seconded by another anonymous student, who also agreed that they would continue to buy the remaining pod options still being shipped out by Juul Labs: mint, menthol, and Virginia tobacco. “Everyone who uses is already addicted,” said the student. “[Juul Labs] got people reliant on the good flavors, then just took them away knowing people would continue to use what’s left.”
Alongside having an abundance of sweet flavors, Quaglieri believes that Juul’s heavy social media presence also attributed to the device’s popularity among younger users. “Juul did a massive social media advertising campaign, which caught the eye of a lot of kids, who are typically exposed to a lot of social platforms,” he said.
This campaign, which featured younger-looking models and ran primarily through the social media site of Instagram, did have the potential to reach millions of underage users. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and Technology branch, 72% teens in the United States have Instagram accounts, which do not use age verification when users register using a birth date.
This meant that if teens wanted, they could still view the Juul Lab account through entering a fake birthday which would give them access to the company’s posts that featured young adult users. This later resulted in an FDA accusation of deliberate marketing to those underage, followed by a removal of all Juul Lab’s social media sites, with the exception of Twitter.
However, while the new shift in marketing may prevent some extent of underage use, many believe it is still not enough. “Upperclassman that are already using won’t stop because of the lack of a flavor,” said another anonymous source. “Even if the number of users decreases due to the banning of fruity pods, there is still a big issue because of how much the public sees those who are already addicted.”
Like marketing, the public view of Juul addictions has also primarily come from Instagram, where there are countless, third-party accounts showcasing the use of Juuls among a younger audience. These accounts not only serve to push forward Juul’s exposure to youth, but can also glorify the product’s use between peers with little regard for the potential health concerns.
“Stopping the social media campaigns was part of a big step in trying to prevent underage use,” said Quaglieri, adding, “but there has still been a major study that shows that e-cigarettes affect a student’s learning ability to move through high school and potentially move on to college.”
The study Quaglieri refers to was conducted by the United States Surgeon General’s Office, and it showed that nicotine, like that from an e-cigarette, has major developmental impacts on the learning centers of a developing brain.
A forth anonymous source attributed this new research, alongside the removal of flavored Juul pods from stores, to their decision to quit within the near future. “I’ve honestly been thinking about quitting anyway, so having more restrictions on access to Juul pods definitely pushes me towards quitting because it’s just not worth the trouble or health issues,” said the student.
The student also thought that the new restrictions would deter potential new users, saying, “the craze is pretty much over, and as they take out the fruit flavored pods and market it more towards adults, I think that’s going to result in a shift in the attitudes of younger users who will see it as less cool and accessible.”
With changing attitudes such as these, ORHS hopes to focus on providing students with resources to help them recover from addiction. “We have a licensed alcohol and drug counselor (LADC) at the school,” said Principal Suzanne Filippone. “Students can go to see this individual if they are feeling the need for any kind of alcohol or drug related counselling. That is a confidential source, and the information is not shared with the administrators or anybody else, even parents.” According to Filippone, the LADC can be contacted through any teacher, administrator, or school counselor.
In addition to providing resources, some schools are also taking a disciplinary approach to stopping underage vaping. Most recently, Rochester’s Spaulding High School implemented a new procedure that automatically refers students caught using Juul devices to authorities, according to “Spaulding High School unveils new electronic cigarette policy” from Foster’s Daily Democrat.
Though Filippone did not reveal if Oyster River was going to follow a similar path, she is hopeful that education on the issue will be key to its eventual resolution. “[The staff] really wants to talk with students about vaping,” she said, also mentioning that the most recent parent newsletter had resources on the dangers of underage nicotine use. “We want to know how we can support kids and what we can do to help kids and parents who are looking for help.”
Article by Devan McClain, Artwork by Emma Kovalcik