Juul Labs got American teenagers hooked to vaping. Now they are paying $438 million in settlements.

Ayaan Paul
Ayaan PaulSep 08, 2022 | 08:00

Juul Labs got American teenagers hooked to vaping. Now they are paying $438 million in settlements.

American e-cigarette company Juul Labs needs to pay $438.5 million in settlements over marketing and sales that ignited the American teenage vaping crisis.

A public health crisis among youths, over four years in the making, e-cigarettes or ‘vapes’ as they are more commonly referred to, have had a staggering impact on the teenage demographic in the US.

But first, what exactly is a vape? 

According to the United States National Youth Tobacco Survey, 2021, vape usage was cited by 11.3% of high school students (1.72 million) and 2.8% of middle school students (320,000).

Though Juul is not the only vape for sale in the US, it is largely blamed for the vaping explosion and controls about 50% of the market.

Packs of Juuls for sale in the US. Photo: Getty Images

One Juul pod contains the same amount of nicotine as one to two packs of cigarettes. The nicotine content in Juuls is higher than other e-cigarette brands; with its e-liquid containing 5% nicotine, almost double the amount of other brands.

After a large social media marketing campaign, Juul became the most popular e-cigarette in the United States by the end of 2017.

An advert for Juul sales in the US. Photo: AFP

Juul purchased ad space in Seventeen magazine, and on the Nickelodeon Jr TV network. The company also bought ads on a number of educational, gaming, and crafting sites directed towards the underaged, that have since been taken down. 

Its widespread use by young people triggered concern for public health and multiple investigations by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Given the high nicotine concentrations in Juul, the potential health consequences of its use by young people were potentially more severe than those from their use of other vaping products.

A conference in New York discussing the ban of Juul to curb youth usage: Getty Images

In 2019, there was a dramatic rise in E-cigarette or Vaping Associated Lung Injury (EVALI). Though the causes of the condition remain shrouded in mystery, the common link has been vape usage. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States, more than 2,660 cases of EVALI hospitalisation or deaths were reported as of 2020.

On October 17, 2019, Juul agreed to make changes to its youth advertising practices as part of a settlement with the Center for Environmental Health. The agreement stated that Juul could not:

  • Advertise or promote its products in media whose audience is 15% or more under the age of 21
  • Market or advertise on social media (except for Juul's age-restricted YouTube channel)
  • Use models under the age of 28 in its advertisements
  • Advertise within 1,000 feet of schools or playgrounds
  • Sponsor or advertise at sporting events or concerts that allow people under the age of 21
  • Pay for or permit company employees or contractors to appear at school or youth-oriented educational programs or events
  • Continue to use the terms "adults only" or "not for use by minors", which may entice minors to use Juul products, and replace them with the phrase "the sale of tobacco products to minors is prohibited by law"
  • Allow unlimited purchase of its product and set clear limits on bulk sales of Juul products at brick and mortar outlets, as well as online

The settlement also required Juul to continue its "secret shopper" program with specific rules on actions the company must take if a store sold a product to a Juul secret shopper without asking for proof of age.

In a piece by Time, Juul, which was valued at $38 billion by its investors before the Trump Administration’s crackdown, faced what CEO Kevin Burns called an “existential” threat, due to rising levels of youth use. 

In January 2019, Juul announced plans for a launch in India. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare however, flat out banned the company in India, fearing that it may derail the government’s anti-tobacco programmes. 

Juul vapes are not legally available in India and they are commonly sold on the gray market. Photo: Getty Images

The regulation of e-cigarettes in India is disputed between the government and the judiciary. Six states have banned their use, though the Delhi High Court has stayed the bans. Juul vapes are not legally available in India and they are commonly sold on the gray market for as much as Rs 8,000 for the starter kit that costs $29 (Rs 2,300) in the United States. 

Though vaping carries hefty fines and in some cases, even jail time, the practice has increased exponentially, especially after the lockdown. 

“I started vaping like everyone else. Saw this device at a friend’s place, that you could smoke cold fruity air through. I got hooked almost immediately. The ease of ordering. The relatively inexpensive prices, the flavours; vapes blew up here in 2022. Everyone has a vape now. And I guess I was a part of that boom.”
- Jon*, an active vape user in India

According to Jon* (22), vapes serve as an alternative to smoking, however, the target demographic off paper are majorly the unassuming younger generations much like himself.

"It's fantastic for people like my sister who are heavy smokers, though definitely not healthy. For people like me, vapes are 100% recreational. Which is why there's a vape addiction epidemic." 
- Jon*, an active vape user in India

Though there have been many advocates for vapes as the most viable alternative to quit tobacco, the prospects for vaping in the country remain uncertain and blurry, mirroring the adverse effects the product may or may not have on our systems.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Last updated: September 08, 2022 | 08:00
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