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Juul is being investigated by Massachusetts for hooking kids on vaping

Juul is being investigated by Massachusetts for hooking kids on vaping


‘Way too much of their product is ending up in the hands of young people and ending up in schools’

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The Massachusetts attorney general is investigating e-cigarette company Juul Labs in a statewide push to end youth vaping and nicotine addiction. Juul Labs controls more than two-thirds of the e-cig market, “and way too much of their product is ending up in the hands of young people and ending up in schools,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a press briefing today.

In April, the Food and Drug Administration asked Juul to turn over information about its products and marketing. The Massachusetts attorney general’s office, following the FDA’s lead, has subpoenaed Juul Labs for information about whether the company’s marketing and sales strategy has specifically targeted young people. “I want to know if they’re tracking underage use of their products,” Healey said at a press briefing on Tuesday morning. “What are they doing about the rampant use of their product by teenagers? And is this an intentional outcome of their own marketing sales strategy?”

Healey suspects that it is, pointing to e-cigarettes’ sweet flavors and the skins featuring cartoon characters that let users customize their vapes. (Sweet flavors are an industry-wide phenomenon; the skins are made by third parties, not Juul.) “This isn’t about getting adults to stop smoking cigarettes. This is about getting kids to start vaping,” she said. “That’s what these companies are up to. They’re engaged in an effort to get kids addicted, to get kids hooked, so that they’ll have customers for the rest of their lives.”

“They’ll have customers for the rest of their lives.”

Healey also referenced a collection of Juul’s advertisements from 2015: “Look at these pictures closely, and tell me whether or not you think this is a company that is there marketing to and looking to directly appeal to young people,” Healy said. But Juul spokesperson Matt David pushed back in a statement emailed to The Verge: “We welcome the opportunity to work with the Massachusetts Attorney General,” he says. We have never marketed to anyone underage. In fact, we have done very little marketing relative to our growth.”

The 2015 Juul ads in question.
The 2015 Juul ads in question.

Similar ads have also been featured in a trio of lawsuits users leveled against the company for hooking them on nicotine. A mom filed one of the suits: her son started Juuling when he was 15 years old. Now, he’s “severely addicted to nicotine, which has altered his brain physically and chemically, and has put him at risk for a lifetime of life-long health problems,” the complaint alleges. It’s an allegation that Jonathan Winickoff, who directs pediatric research at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Tobacco Research and Treatment Center, backed up from the podium today. “The adolescent brain is uniquely sensitive to nicotine and becomes addicted more rapidly and at lower concentrations,” Winickoff says. “The younger a teen starts smoking or vaping, the harder it will be to quit.”

“The adolescent brain is uniquely sensitive to nicotine.”

As part of this bigger push against underage vaping, the attorney general’s office has also sent cease and desist letters to online stores that are accused of selling e-cigarette products to minors, which is against the law. Healey is putting schools on alert about Juul after hearing that the company has offered prevention curriculums to educators. She is warning school districts about using these materials. “This is a company that has taken a page directly out of the cigarette industry’s playbook, and now they want to directly contract with and engage with school districts across the state,” Healey said at the briefing today. (Juul spokesperson David says, “We collaborate upon request with school districts and law enforcement on local youth prevention initiatives.”)

During the announcement about the investigation, Healey shared the podium with Shariel Joseph, a student at Watertown High School in Massachusetts. Joseph is a member of The 84, a statewide student anti-tobacco group, who said that the sweet flavors made her and her friends — who’ve never tried regular cigarettes — want to try e-cigarettes. They’re so pervasive, she said, that “if you needed to borrow one, there would be a handful of people that would be able to let you use one,” she said. “It’s actually really sad, because when you need to borrow a pencil, only one or two people would be able to let you use one.”