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Stanford tobacco researcher weighs in on JUUL

In this commentary, Stanford tobacco expert Robert Jackler adds context to the recent decision by JUUL to stop direct social media in the U.S.

As you may know, JUUL is a pod-based e-cigarette with exceptionally high nicotine. While potentially useful in transitioning adult cigarette smokers to less harmful vapor, in the hands of nicotine-naive teenagers, it is potently addictive. Although JUUL claims to have the noble mission of: “improving the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers,” its use has become epidemic among American middle and high school students.

Under pressure from imminent U.S. Food and Drug Administration action, investigations by several state attorneys generals, a bevy of class action lawsuits, and intense media criticism, JUUL has announced a series of measures to “combat youth use” of their products.

One of JUUL’s principal actions was to agree to halt their social media advertising. While this is laudable and long overdue, it's likely to have at most a limited effect. By heavily marketing via youth-oriented sites such as Instagram, JUUL established its popularity among teens by stimulating a community of “JUULers” who post enormous volumes of favorable comments across social media channels.

Enthusiasm among this group was ginned up by JUUL’s paid influencers — individuals with large inventories of followers on social media who serve as brand ambassadors. JUUL has used influencers to create and nurture conversations about their brand. Influencers contribute what appears to be independent user-generated content which is influential, in part, due to its perceived independence from marketers’ influences.

While JUUL has halted its own posts, the viral peer-to-peer spread among teens the company initiated will live on indefinitely, or at least until the teen craze for JUUL abates.

JUUL sells their products in the U.K., Canada, Israel, and will soon be in Asia. In the U.K., 85 percent of teens are on Instagram. JUUL’s decision to halt its social media only in the U.S. suggests that their action is more a defensive tactic in response to threatened regulation than a genuine commitment to stemming underage use. It is hard to escape the impression that JUUL seems willing to give up social media marketing in the U.S., where it has a dominant market share, and keep using it in emerging global markets.

Even without direct social media, JUUL remains a big deal. Since its introduction in June 2015, JUUL has had a meteoric rise in sales and now represents nearly 75 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette market. A mere three years since its product launch, the company has achieved an impressive valuation of $15 billion and is now recognized to be the fastest startup to reach $10 billion valuation, achieving this milestone 4 times faster than Facebook.

Over the last year, Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising, which I direct, has intensely studied the JUUL phenomenon. Our website features 1,400 JUUL advertisements, nearly all from social media sources.

Robert Jackler, MD, is a professor and chair of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery. He is a co-founder and director of Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising.

Photo by Abdiel Ibarra

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