JUUL Faces New Lawsuit Over Marketing Tactics
Marketing to youth has long been part of the tobacco industry’s strategy to keep a steady influx of customers. However, since the Joe Camel lawsuit in 1997, tobacco companies have increasingly been under fire for targeting underage consumers. Most disavow these intentions, but from time to time, a company will draw attention to these kinds of tactics. Most recently, the vaping pioneer, JUUL, has been pinpointed.
Despite assertions that they had never marketed their products to children or teenagers, a recent New York Times article reports that JUUL purchased ad space on youth-centered websites like Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network, Seventeen magazine, and educational sites for students as young as middle school.
This report highlights a new lawsuit filed by the Massachusetts attorney general, Maura Haley, on February 12, 2020. The suit indicates that JUUL was targeting underage demographics during its early launch period between June 2015 and early 2016.
Efforts to target this demographic were deliberate according to the lawsuit. JUUL rejected an initial marketing proposal that aimed to attract adult smokers by using vintage 1980s technology. Instead, they produced a campaign featuring youthful models and sought to enlist millennials, Gen Z celebrities, and Instagram influencers to increase appeal to younger consumers.
“This is the first real window into JUUL’s original marketing plan, and what it did to target our kids — target our kids. That’s what we’re talking about,” Healey said at a press conference. “JUUL’s own documents show that the company intentionally chose fashionable models and images that appeal to young people for its ads. They tried to recruit celebrities and social media influencers like Miley Cyrus and Kristen Stewart to promote its products. It purchased ad space and websites for kids, such as Nickelodeon, Seventeen, and Cartoon Network. It’s sold and shipped e-cigarettes to underage kids in Massachusetts through its website. And it worked.”
Equally – if not more – troubling are charges that these ads were placed in paid advertising positions across a wide range of websites intended for underage audiences. Sites include:
Educational sites: basic-mathematics.com, mathplayground.com, mathway.com, onlinemathlearning.com, and purplemath.com, socialstudiesforkids.com, and schcollegeconfidential.com
Gaming sites for young girls: dailydressupgames.com, didigames.com, forhergames.com, games2girls.com, girlgames.com, and girlsgogames.com
General game and craft sites for young children: allfreekidscrafts.com, hellokids.com, and kidsgameheroes.com
The report also alleges that JUUL had given e-cigarettes to consumers who provided high school students’ email addresses.
Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, among other national anti-smoking organizations applauded the lawsuit. Matthew Myers, president of the organization, commented that “What is remarkable is the extent to which a single company, drove this train and the extent to which the decisions of that company were knowing, conscious and intentional with disregard for the health and safety of our kids.”
JUUL executives have yet to address the specific charges in the complaint. Company spokesperson Austin Finan has only commented that, “While we have not yet reviewed the complaint, we remain focused on resetting the vapor category in the U.S. and earning the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to combat underage use and transition adult smokers from combustible cigarettes.”
Public sentiment has turned against JUUL as more information comes to light about the dangers of vaping and concern over what has been called “an epidemic” of underage vaping by the federal government. According to a 2019 CDC study, e-cigarette use was reported at 27.5% among high school students and 10.5% among middle school students. The company has strongly rejected claims that it has focused its marketing on youth and maintains its position that its sole goal is to help adult smokers transition to a safer option.