Juul has always stuck by its story of creating a product intended solely for adult users. But a New York Times analysis shows how the company’s growth came from direct appeals to young consumers.
Once it felt confident in its product—and its ability to meet the needs of would-be ex-smokers—Juul began pushing its e-cigarettes into the market. Juul appealed to social media and launched events which, invariably, featured attractive young people puffing on its sleek, metallic devices.
“There were hundreds of activation events, and it was in seeing the photos and social usage that followed that I would catch myself saying, ‘Wow, they look really young’,” said Scott Dunlap, Pax Labs chief operating officer through 2015. “But you don’t really know it. It’s social media, after all, where everyone is their younger, idealized selves. All you know is that you are seeing the early signs of a viral brand taking off.”
Two former executives told the Times that Juul—back then—thought that involving young people in its products would draw in two demographics. One was smoking-averse Millennials; the other, “older smokers who imagined themselves as, well, young.”
Juul’s intensive social media and publicity campaigns were accompanied by massive upticks in youth use and orders. Orders for Juul start kits, made with “clearly” fake IDs, were placed on the company’s website; representatives approved the sales anyway. And, still trying to dominate social media, Juul patented a flashy, practically post-modern device with a “party mode,” practically meant for young users.
However, Juul’s tactics quickly attracted scrutiny. The Times says that, in the summer of 2018, “a group of former attorneys general and public health experts got on a call with Juul executives, including then-chief executive Kevin Burns, to advise them how to stop teenagers from getting Juuls.”
The Times says that the call didn’t go well. When officials suggested that Juul stop selling nicotine pods with flavors likely to appeal to kids, Juul refused.
“They just refused to do it,” said Grant Woods, Arizona’s former attorney general. “I said on the call, ‘I would sue you.’”
Woods, adds the Times, sued Big Tobacco in the 1990s. He later dropped off the Juul advisory panel because he felt the company was insincere and unwilling to change to its tactics.
But Juul’s strategy began imploding. In the latter months of 2018 through today, lawsuits began piling up against the company, many accusing it of running an insidious campaign designed to attract and addict youth.
With pressure mounting, Juul agreed in December 2018 to sell 35% of its stock to Altria, the owner of Marlboro and other traditional cigarette brands. The sale entailed the hand-off of almost $13 billion, most of which went straight into executives and investors’ accounts. Less than a tenth of the sale was put back into Juul itself.
Under the terms of the offer, Altria would use its “vast distribution channels to sell Juul products.” After four years, Altria will be able to make a take-over offer.
The union of Altria and Juul only incensed the FDA, with both companies continuing to claim they wanted to curb youth addiction.
As the Times concludes, it’s an ironic fate for Juul: when the company first formed and was still named Pax, its founder, James Monsees, would wear shirts spelling out expletives against Big Tobacco. At the same time, Monsees and his colleagues were using a maybe-some-day sale to companies like Altria as a selling point for investors.
Now, years later, Juul is poised to be absorbed into Big Tobacco, controlled by the same malicious interests it’s spent so long insisting it was created to counter.