A Congressional House subcommittee on Thursday finished its two day hearing on JUUL e-cigarettes and the rise in youth vaping nationwide.
Multiple ongoing investigations into JUUL Labs, conducted by the FDA as well as two state attorney generals, prompted this week’s Congressional hearing. Among matters discussed were JUUL’s advertising strategies and JUUL’s “Youth Prevention” cigarette risk education program. The Youth Prevention program was initially established by JUUL as a response to the public’s growing concern about youth vaping. JUUL organized Youth Prevention events nationwide claiming its commitment to combat the growing epidemic by educating kids on the dangers of smoking. According to JUUL’s Youth Prevention website, “JUUL Labs is committed to improving the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers by eliminating cigarettes. We don’t’ want anyone who doesn’t smoke or already use nicotine, to use JUUL products. We certainly don’t want youth using the product. It is bad for public health, and it is bad for our mission.”
As part of this mission, JUUL held numerous in-school presentations for students. JUUL offered $10,000 to each of the schools for the right to hold discussions with students. According to a JUUL spokesperson, the company has funded six grants of unspecified amounts to schools and youth programs in order to conduct “vaping prevention activities.” At one such event at the Dwight School in New York City, a JUUL representative met with students – with no teachers or adult supervision present – and told the students that while cigarettes were dangerous, JUUL e-cigarettes were “totally safe”.
After donating $90,000 to the Richmond, California Police Activities League, JUUL held a Youth Prevention program for local middle school and high school students, specifically students who had faced suspension for using cigarettes. Juul “deployed a sophisticated program to enter schools and convey it's messaging directly to teenage children, recruited thousands of online influencers to market its vaping devices to youths and targeted children as young as 8 in summer camp,” wrote a Congressional subcommittee staffer in a memo prepared for the hearing.
Representative Katie Hill (CA) accused JUUL of financing two specific Youth Prevention programs in exchange for data about student test scores, surveys, and activity logs. At one point during the hearing, Hill directly addressed JUUL chief administrative officer Ashley Gould, asking why JUUL would need any of that information. Gould said she was not aware that that data was collected, but defended the data collection stating, “anything we undertook in the educational space was intended to keep kids away from using the product.”
In total, the subcommittee collected thousands of documents from JUUL and the agencies currently investigating JUUL, which the subcommittee used to base its findings.
These documents included internal emails between JUUL employees. In an email dating from April of last year, JUUL director of youth prevention and education program Julie Henderson discussed whether the company should attend a health fair at Hinsdale Central High School, in the suburbs of Chicago. Henderson wrote to two consultants, “Just spoke with Ashley and she shares my concern about the optics of us attending a student health fair given our new understanding of how much our efforts seem to duplicate those of Big Tobacco.”
The documents presented in the hearing also included a detailed plan to recruit celebrity “influencers” to promote the brand and products. The FDA has previously questioned whether JUUL used specific marketing tactics, including using social media “influencers” to advertise their products to an underage market. The marketing plan stated that JUUL aimed to use influencers in pop-culture with large audiences in various sectors such as music, movies, social, pop-media, etc.
Defending against claims that JUUL marketed its products to appeal to youth, JUUL co-founder James Monsees addressed the subcommittee emphasizing JUUL’s discontinued in-store sales of flavored nicotine products, affording those sales especially to their website, which requires age-verified sales. Multiple hearing presenters contended Monsees's argument, saying that JUUL’s efforts fell short. The subcommittee decided that JUUL’s claimed intentions for the Youth Prevention programs were a farce and that the company had used these programs to familiarize teenagers with its products. Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (IL) stated that the company had also failed to actually discourage youth vaping by removing flavored products. “Although you say you took all the flavors out of the stores, you left the mint flavor,” he said. “Mint is a flavor and it took the place of other flavors,” Krishnamoorthi stated.
JUUL continues to claim that the benefits of JUUL – helping cigarette smokers to transition away from cigarettes – are a benefit to public health. The FDA’s investigation is still ongoing. JUUL has until May 2020 to prove to the FDA that JUUL products are more of a benefit than a liability to public health, otherwise, the FDA could decide to pull JUUL off the market.
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