The Juul Rules: Why the FDA’s approach to Nicotine Addiction is not Enough
Updated: Apr 10, 2019
Written by Evan Marrow
The fruity smelling Juul clouds that flow through the halls of high schools and college campuses alike may become much less common. On November 13th, 2018, Juul Labs announced that they would suspend the sales of most of their flavored pods in retailers and would terminate their social media ad campaigns as well. The change in policy stems from a developing trend in the e-cigarette industry, in which products supposedly designed to transition smokers from cigarettes now cause nicotine addiction among non-smoking teens. Recently, the FDA has become increasingly concerned with this trend, pressuring prominent vaping manufacturers to reform their marketing strategies to combat their appeal to younger consumers. A focus of their campaign has been Juul Labs, which accounts for 70 percent of the e-cigarette market in the U.S. However, Juul Labs’ outreach has expanded far beyond their official social media accounts and advertisements. Through vaping YouTubers, Instagram and Twitter handles and memes regarding the product and its social associations (parties, frat culture, etc.), the company lacks control over its own marketing. The growth of the product cannot be attributed solely to the addictiveness of nicotine, but rather the culture that has blossomed around the Juul.
In a recent statement, Kevin Burns, the CEO of Juul labs, said “Our intent was never to have youth use Juul.” Burns may be telling the truth, as the company’s initial ad campaign was comprised of scenes portraying adults in their late 20’s and early 30’s using the product. Either way, it was naïve for the manufacturer to assume that their branding did not enable the development of a teen cultural phenomenon. The Juul’s design is inherently sleek, with some publications labeling it as the “iPhone of e-cigs.” Its resemblance to a flash drive not only enabled trolls to hold up USB drives to people’s faces at parties, but also provided a level of discreteness and normality that combats the stigma surrounding vaping. Before the Juul, obnoxiously large pens and boxes, and memes such as youtuber h3h3Productions’ “vape nation” videos dominated the public’s perception of vaping, attaching a negative connotation to the act. Yet the Juul’s subtlety has seemingly extinguished people’s skepticism towards vaping, as since the introduction of the device, an increasing number of younger nonsmokers have become addicted to nicotine.
As Juuls became more popular, addictions to them became embedded in popular culture particularly on social media. The most common Juul memes portray people’s despair over losing one, their ecstasy over finding one or their inability to quit. Videos of how people separate themselves from their Juuls, whether flushing it down a toilet or throwing it off a boat, are commonplace on Twitter and Instagram as well. Owners also name their Juuls, often engraving them into the device. The heartfelt goodbyes and names signify how the seriousness of nicotine addiction in the context of the Juul has been diminished by its cultural value. The humorous manifestations of quitting and emotional attachment overshadow the underlying addictive effects of nicotine that lead to these actions. As a result, people’s perceived risk of Juuling is lowered, increasing their likelihood to become addicted.
Recently, Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal on Twitter called for the FDA to ban all flavored e-cigarettes to prevent manufacturers from “luring young people into lifetimes of addiction.” Like the FDA, Blumenthal is not recognizing that e-cigarettes are resonating with teens not because of company’s marketing tactics such as flavors but because of their penetration into popular culture. For younger generations especially, social media is a main catalyst for disseminating trends. As posts relating to the Juul become more common on these platforms, they build a growing sense of familiarity with the product. Familiarity equates to a lower perceived risk; thus, people are more likely to try Juuling. Social factors such as peer pressure, which are more prevalent within younger demographics, contribute to e-cigarette use as well, which can then lead to nicotine addiction. Yet, how can the FDA, a government organization run by older public officials, effectively regulate youth culture and social media to combat nicotine addiction? We will have to wait and see, but currently their approach does not target the core of the issue.