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Alex Telfer/Guardian/eyevine
What Juul Tried to Hide

How vape and cigarette companies have targeted young people

By Joey Bartolomeo

Learning Objective: to compare how Juul and Big Tobacco have manipulated young people, and to propose ways kids can protect themselves

Lexile: 1020L
Other Key Skills: vocabulary, inference, text structure, key ideas and details
AS YOU READ

As you read the articles and study the images, think about the tactics Juul has used to sell its dangerous products.

What Juul Tried to Hide 

The e-cigarette company Juul says its products are for adults. But behind the smoke screen is the truth: It’s been after YOU—and your money—all along.

Imagine you have a school health seminar about addiction. The purpose of the seminar is to help kids make healthy choices. At one point, the teachers leave the room so you and your classmates can talk freely with the guest speaker.

After the door closes, the speaker tells you that he works for Juul Labs, a company that makes e-cigarettes, or vaping products. He says Juul’s products are safe but that Juul doesn’t want kids using them.

You’ve heard that e-cigs contain a dangerous chemical called nicotine, so you ask the speaker about nicotine addiction. He pulls out a Juul pen, shows you how it works, and calls it “the iPhone of vapes.”

Wait.

Didn’t he just say that Juul doesn’t want you vaping? So why is he now sort of selling you on it?

Two years ago, this is what happened to Caleb Mintz, then a ninth-grader in New York City. As he listened to the speaker, Caleb couldn’t help but question the speaker’s motives.

“I believe he was trying to reassure kids that they could use Juul pods without harming themselves,” Caleb says.

Turns out, Caleb was right. 

Targeting Teens

Vaping products, like the ones made by Juul, are battery-powered devices. They work by heating up a liquid that turns into vapor, which the user inhales.

This vapor may seem harmless, but it’s not. It contains dangerous chemicals, including nicotine—which is also in cigarettes. Nicotine is highly addictive. Once it’s in your body, you crave more and more.  And consider this: One Juul pod has as much nicotine as 20 cigarettes.

Last summer, Congress launched an investigation into Juul’s role in increased nicotine use by teens. Caleb participated in the investigation by testifying about what happened during the health seminar at his school. (Caleb’s school was not aware that the speaker worked for Juul; the speaker had been hired by an outside company that organized the seminar.)

The investigation revealed that Juul had been using manipulative tactics to target kids. According to a congressional report, the company worked with social media influencers to promote its products. It also paid schools for access to students. It set up presentations, a curriculum, and a summer program.

Juul described its plans for young people as “healthy lifestyle” programs, the report stated. But these programs likely served as recruitment drives for new, young customers who might get addicted to vaping for life.

Juul “deliberately targeted children in order to become the nation’s largest seller of e-cigarettes,” the report said.

This means that many teens who decided to vape didn’t make that decision entirely on their own. They were manipulated by a major corporation.

Who do you think the ads are designed to appeal to? What tactics are the ads using?

Getting Sucked In    

Right about now you might be thinking, “Nope, not me. I’m not that easily manipulated.”

But the numbers tell a different story. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 20 middle schoolers used e-cigarettes in 2018. In high school, the statistic is 1 in 5. That adds up to more than 3.6 million kids using e-cigarettes—a huge increase from 2011, when the number was 220,000.

“I’ve walked into the school bathroom between classes, and someone would just hand me a Juul,” says Camilo Villegas, 18, from Waconia, Minnesota, who recently quit vaping.

Even if you’re unlikely to give in to peer pressure, you’re likely influenced by what you see on social media. And companies know it.

During the congressional investigation, a Juul memo was released describing Juul’s social media plans. “We are aiming for influencers in popular culture with large audiences in various sectors such as music, movies, social, pop media, etc.,” the memo stated.

In other words, Juul wanted the people you admire to talk about its products and promote them—to, say, be photographed with a Juul sticking out of their pocket. That would make vaping seem appealing, even glamorous.

Last year, when it became obvious that the number of teens Juuling was growing at an alarming rate, Juul shut down its accounts on Instagram and Facebook. Yet the products still show up on social media.

“I see people Juuling on all platforms every day,” says Sophia Waxman, 14, from New York City, who has never Juuled and has no plans to start. “On Instagram, posts show up on my Explore page from accounts I don’t even follow.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 20 middle schoolers used e-cigarettes in 2018.

Old Tactics

Manipulating teens to get them to buy harmful products is nothing new. Cigarette companies, known as Big Tobacco, did it for years. In the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, cigarette ads featured students smoking in graduation caps or cheerleading uniforms. Some ads were designed to look like comic strips. One brand even had a cartoon mascot until 1997.

Today, e-cigarette companies like Juul are borrowing Big Tobacco’s old tactics for their ads, packaging, and product design.

From the beginning, Juul has claimed its products are for adults who already smoke cigarettes and want a different way to get their nicotine fix. But even back in 2015, when Juul first came on the market, the company’s ads featured colorful graphics and young models, one of whom could have been tagged as an Ariana Grande look-alike.

So it was difficult to believe Kevin Burns, the former CEO of Juul Labs, when he said during a TV interview this past summer that he was “sorry” young people used his company’s products. “I hope there was nothing that we did that made it appealing to them,” he added. (Burns resigned two months later.)

Brain Damage

In fact, Juul went beyond sneaky advertising in its efforts to make its products desirable to young users. It also masked the taste of nicotine with flavors like mango and mint. Again, this is a tactic borrowed from Big Tobacco. For young people who didn’t want to light up, there were plenty of smokeless tobacco products that tasted like candy. Big Tobacco knew if it could get young people hooked, it would make money on their addiction for years to come—even though that addiction was killing its customers.

Last year, Juul announced it would stop selling most flavored pods in stores and added strict age verification to its online store. But some places still carry flavored pods, and teens are paying marked-up prices to get them—a sign that many are hooked.

Why is that a problem?

Nicotine can damage your brain, specifically the parts that control mood, learning, and attention span, explains Thomas Ylioja, clinical director of Health Initiatives Programs at National Jewish Health. Plus, teens who use e-cigarettes are more likely to smoke regular cigarettes in the future*.

Once nicotine hooks you, your brain wants more, “even at the risk of your own health,” says Ylioja. 

Clearing the Air    

It’s not just nicotine that is a concern when it comes to vaping. There’s evidence that vaping may be destroying users’ lungs.

In September, the CDC announced it is investigating 380 cases of severe lung illnesses in young adults—all related to e-cigarette use. At press time, there had been at least 26 deaths across 21 states.

Now some people are fighting back—like 18-year-old Chance Ammirata from Miami, Florida. After Chance wound up in the hospital with a collapsed lung, his doctor told him that the damage was caused by a preexisting condition that can be worsened by vaping. The doctor then showed Chance pictures of his lungs, which were covered in tiny black dots—a buildup of chemicals from his Juul habit.

Chance knew he needed to quit—immediately. But he was still having what he described as “scary” cravings.

“When I started Juuling, I really did think it was harmless,” Chance says. “I feel like I got lured into something I did not sign up for.”

After Chance posted pictures of his damaged lungs on social media, he began hearing from young people who said he’d inspired them to quit. “Now I want to help as many people as I can,” he says.

Chance started the Lung Love Foundation to spread a simple message to e-cig companies like Juul: “We are not just dollar signs.”

He’s been filling his Instagram stories with videos he’s received of people smashing their Juuls, and he urges teens to support each other in kicking their habit.

“You have the power to take back control of your life,” Chance says. “And when you’re able to do that, it’s so liberating.” 



* 2019 study by Boston University’s School for Public Health

Various-Everythings/Shutterstock.com (phone); via Instagram/Chance Ammirata (hospital photo, Chance)

“We are not just dollar signs.”

That’s Chance Ammirata’s message for e-cigarette companies. He started the Lung Love Foundation to share his story about vaping and warn other teens about the health risks of e-cigarettes.

How Big Tobacco Fooled America   

For decades, cigarette companies tried to get young people hooked. Here’s how America fought back.    

jokerpro/Shutterstock.com

Looking at cigarette ads from the 1940s and 1950s, you might find yourself thinking, “Are these for real?” Take the ads for Camel cigarettes that say, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” Or the ad with a baby saying, “Gee, Mommy you sure enjoy your Marlboro.”

Were these misleading and dangerous advertisements really legal?

Yes.

Until the mid-1960s, the marketing of tobacco had few restrictions. Along with doctors and babies, cartoon characters, famous athletes, and movie stars made regular appearances in ads. Cigarettes were advertised on TV, in magazines, and on billboards.

Across America, cigarettes were widely available too. For less than a dollar, it was possible to buy a pack at a drugstore, a restaurant, or a hospital gift shop. And even though it was illegal in most states to sell cigarettes to young people, teens found it easy to get their hands on them.

How did this happen?

Deceptive Marketing    

In the early 20th century, few people understood the enormous health risks that smoking posed, and in the coming decades, tobacco companies used aggressive marketing tactics to get people addicted. They made smoking seem fun and glamorous. They hired doctors and dentists to say smoking was not only safe but also good for you. They created smoking cartoon characters that appealed to kids and placed cigarette packs featuring those characters low on store shelves, where they’d be eye level with children.

But the dangers of smoking couldn’t be hidden forever. In the 1950s, several studies linked smoking to lung cancer and heart disease. Tobacco companies vehemently disputed these results. In 1954, they even ran a full-page ad in hundreds of newspapers and magazines. “We believe the products we make are not injurious to health,” the ad stated.

However, Big Tobacco understood that growing public concern over the hazards of smoking would cause them to lose money if people started to quit. So they introduced “filter-tip” cigarettes, which they claimed were “milder” and “safer.” In reality, these filtered cigarettes are no safer than any other kind of cigarette, but the marketing worked. Filtered cigarettes soon became the most popular cigarettes on the market. 

Forever Changed    

Then something happened that forever changed the public’s view of smoking. In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General (the head of our public health service) declared that smoking causes cancer. Americans took the message seriously. After reaching nearly 42 percent in 1965, the percentage of adults who smoke in the U.S. began to fall. Soon after, the rules about where people could smoke and how tobacco companies could sell and advertise cigarettes began to change too.

Today, it’s illegal to advertise cigarettes on TV. All packs must have warning labels. And the U.S. is much less friendly to tobacco companies—and smokers. Most states restrict where people can smoke. Higher taxes on cigarettes have made smoking a costly habit too. In some states, a pack can cost $10 or more. (Studies show that raising cigarette taxes reduces smoking rates.)

Plenty of other efforts are underway to try to prevent people from smoking as well. Perhaps surprisingly, many are paid for by tobacco companies. In 1998, as part of a lawsuit settlement, tobacco companies agreed to give states billions of dollars for programs that help people quit smoking and discourage kids and teens from starting. 

The New York Times (headline); VARLEY/SIPA/Newscom (Surgeon General’s warning)

Today, all cigarette packs are required to come with warning labels.

Keep Your Guard Up

Today, far fewer Americans smoke than in the 1960s. Yet 14 percent of American adults do smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and one in five deaths is linked to smoking. Most smokers want to quit, but the addictive nature of nicotine makes quitting difficult.

But why are 8.1 percent* of high school students—who have grown up hearing about the dangers of cigarettes—smoking in the first place?

For one thing, the tobacco industry has found ways around marketing rules, such as enlisting social media influencers to post photos or videos that show cigarettes**. Then there’s smoking in movies and video games, which is a major factor in teen smoking***. Plus, there’s vaping, which is also dangerous and can lead to cigarette smoking. In fact, one of Juul’s largest investors is Altria, a cigarette company.

So while you won’t see a cigarette ad on TV or in your Instagram feed, you’ve still got to keep your guard up.



*2018 survey by the Centers for Disease Control **In July, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Cancer Society, and other public health groups filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission, saying four tobacco companies broke the law by using social media to promote smoking. ***U.S. Surgeon General’s Report (smoking in movies) and Truth Initiative (smoking in video games)

This article was originally published in the December 2019 / January 2020 issue.

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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ

2. READING AND DISCUSSING

3. SKILL BUILDING AND WRITING

Differentiated Writing Prompts
For Struggling Readers

In a well-organized paragraph, describe the tactics that Juul and Big Tobacco have used to persuade young people to buy their products. Use details from both articles.

For Advanced Readers

How have the e-cigarette industry and Big Tobacco manipulated young people into buying their dangerous products? What can you do to protect yourself? Support your ideas with information from both articles and one additional source.

CUSTOMIZED PERFORMANCE TASKS
For Opinion Writers

Write an argument essay about why social media companies should protect the public from exposure to posts that promote vaping and smoking. Optionally, send your essay to a social media platform of your choice.

For Health Advocates

Do further research into the effects of vaping on the body and why it is harmful for young people. Present your findings as a public service announcement in the form of a poster, podcast, or short video.