In Defense of Juul, After the Latest Media Hit-Piece

October 2, 2018

The media frenzy against Juul, the US market leader in vaping products, is on steroids—and this feeds directly into actions like the FDA raid on Juul headquarters that took place last week. The latest hit-piece was published a few days ago on the website Medium. Its appalling headline sums up this drug panic: “How Juul Exploited Teens’ Brains to Hook Them on Nicotine.”

The article, by science writer Dana G. Smith, is biased, chock-full of misinformation and falsehoods, and quotes only tobacco harm-reduction hatersmost notoriously Stanton Glantz, director of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, and Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. There isn’t one counterpoint from leading harm reductionists in defense of Juul.

There is a clear template by now for writing fear-mongering articles about the company. It goes something like this: developing teen brains and nicotine; flavors (candy, fruit); “discreet” USB design; “juuling” as a verb; #juul; bigger dose of nicotine;kids”; “epidemic.” Smith faithfully follows the script.

The piece starts by uncritically citing the FDA’s declaration that there is an “epidemic” of youth e-cigarette use, and that teen vaping is up by 75 percent since 2017. It doesn’t disclose that the FDA hasn’t even released the data showing this increase. In its absence, there is reason to be skeptical about the number. Researchers in tobacco harm reduction groups to which I belong constantly debate the methods used to gage rates of teen vaping.

Riccardo Polosa, a professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Catania, Italy, and a leading vaping researcher, stated: “I cannot believe the FDA is speaking of an increase in youth e-cigarette use of epidemic proportions. Previously available data indicates that the highest rate of frequent e-cig use among never-smoking youth peaked in 2015 at only 0.2% (National Youth Tobacco Survey, 2015 data). Even if we accept that a 75 percent increase in e-cig use is real, that would still not justify the term “epidemic”; a 75 percent increase of 0.2 percent makes it only 0.35 percent. In truth, a strong emotional debate is being framed about teens and sadly the FDA is fueling an unscientific discussion.”

If your goal is for millions of smokers to prefer your product to their daily cigarettes, you can’t create a device that is ugly, unappealing, or difficult to use.

Next up are some dire pronouncements about Juul from Glantz and Myers. Glantz intones: “Juul is the perfect product for kids because it’s all electronic and modern. From a public health point of view, it’s a disaster.” Meyers adds: “Juul was the perfect storm. You couldn’t design a combination of a campaign and a product more perfect to undo all the good that has been done over the last 30 years.”

Actually, it’s the opposite. Vaping, found by Public Health England to be around 95 percent less harmful than smoking, is a victory for smokers no matter their age.

The inventors of Juul–Adam Bowen and James Monsees–are Silicon Valley, ex-Stanford University tech geeks. They majored in the sciences and studio arts and became product developers. And they smoked a lot of cigarettes together. Then they invented a nicotine delivery device that was orders of magnitude safer than combustible cigarettes, like all e-cigarettes, but also attractive and enjoyable enough to make smokers want to switch. The rest is history.

Bowen and Monsees designed an e-cigarette that was sleek, efficient and simple to use. If your goal is for millions of smokers to prefer your product to their daily cigarettes, you can’t exactly create a device that is ugly, unappealing, difficult to use or unable to deliver the right amount of nicotine.

Over 450,000 people die every year in the US as a result of smoking-related illness, and this devastating toll was a driving force behind the creation of Juul. “It’s hard to imagine an area that can be more powerful to public health then to eliminate cigarettes from the face of the earth…” Monsees said. “We built this company around the idea of making smoking obsolete.”

Smith’s article would have readers believe that Bowen and Monsees’ nefarious aim was merely “exploiting teen brains to hook them on nicotine” to enrich themselves. They certainly have gotten rich, but that doesn’t invalidate the public health benefit of their product.

Why would teenagers be particularly attracted to “cool cucumber”? Do they even know what crème brûlée is?

Smith uses the word “discreet” in a pejorative way to describe the device, as if other e-cigarette brands aren’t used discreetly. She also accuses the company of “using sweet flavors that appeal to kids.”

Note how both Glantz and Smith use the word “kids” to describe teenage Juul users. The word, which consistently pops up in pro-drug war propaganda, feeds a moral panic that will likely lead to the banning of flavored e-liquids, making some smokers who want flavors less likely to switch.

Let’s examine the claim itself. Juul pods come in mint, mango, fruit, menthol, crème brûlée and cool cucumber–recently changed to “creme and cucumber” after a warning from the FDA. Why would teenagers be particularly attracted to “cool cucumber,” when they typically hate vegetables? Or to the French dessert crème brûlée? Do American teens even know what crème brûlée is?

Smith cites scientists who say that “young people’s brains are specifically wired to prefer the taste of sweet.” Her admission that adults also like sweet tastes gets little play. The reality is there is overlap between the tastes of teens and adults. Smith doesn’t mention that nicotine gum is also available in flavors: cinnamon surge, mint, mint freeze, white ice mint, fruit chill, cherry and spearmint burst. Or that many liquors are infused with apple, lime, lemon and orange.

But who decides what qualifies as a flavor that appeals to teens? People who hate the idea of tobacco harm reduction. Almost all e-liquids are flavoured with something, even if it’s just “tobacco” or menthol. So where is the evidence that often-cited flavors like gummy bear, cotton candy and candy crush particularly encourage youth vaping? There is no evidence.  

Another charge against Juul is that it uses social media to promote its products. “The posts featured young, attractive models paired with taglines like ‘The freedom of a #JUULmoment,’” Smith narrates. But what 21st century company doesn’t advertise this way? And people who purchase their products use social media to post photos and videos of what they bought and how they use it, just as people did with Juul.

I don’t believe that everything Juul has done is error-free, simply that their net effect on public health has been transformative. Monsee has admitted that the original Juul campaign was “flawed,” saying that they “wanted the product to stand out.” The company is working with Facebook and Instagram to reduce posts and photographs that might entice youth to use Juul.

The Medium piece ends with a whopper of a lie to reinforce the false narrative that smokers cannot switch to reduced-risk devices.

Smith additionally pulls out the frightening “this is your brain on nicotine” argument, again mirroring the FDA and it’s “The Real Cost—An Epidemic is Spreading” video, reminiscent of the ridiculous and laughable “Scared Straight” videos that are based on junk science and lies. She quotes a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University who thinks, “You introduce nicotine to [the brain], or any harmful substance, and it actually changes the chemistry of the brain. And it changes the chemistry of the brain particularly as an adolescent because you’re so malleable.”

This conflation of nicotine with a “harmful substance” is misinformation. Nicotine is a mild stimulant that is not harmful to the vast majority of people who use it. In fact, it helps millions of people’s brains function better, and that includes teen brains.

Nicotine is a performance enhancer that increases focus, attention and energy–much like the Ritalin and Adderall that has been prescribed to millions of teenagers. Nicotine enhances visual stimuli, like videos, and music. It also helps to cope with boredom, which is what a day at school is for many teenagers.

As this study shows, making e-cigarettes more difficult for teens to purchase via age restrictions and bans can result in them turning to combustible tobacco. Average first cigarette use takes place at the age of 15. 

We have to accept that some teenagers will experiment or regularly use nicotine just as they use alcohol, cannabis and other drugs. Having vaping products available for teens who want to use nicotine is vital to helping them not begin smoking. A campaign to educate young people about nicotine and vaping that is harm reduction-based is desperately needed. The Drug Policy Alliance has developed drug education for teens that rejects a fear-based, “just say no” approach and instead is scientifically accurate, compassionate, and honest.   

The Medium piece ends with a whopper of a lie to reinforce the false narrative that smokers cannot switch to reduced-risk devices and are hopelessly addicted to cigarettes. Smith writes, “There is evidence that e-cigarettes can help smokers quit, but the numbers are paltry.”

No, the numbers are huge. Even the extra 3.4 percent of smokers who were able to quit thanks to vaping according to the study cited by Smith, would represent roughly 1 million people if extrapolated across America’s 38 million smokers, and matter enormously. You may be skeptical of the claim by Bowen and Monsees that Juul alone has helped 1 million smokers switch in three years in the US, and I understand that. But if Smith looked beyond American borders, she would know millions have, beyond all doubt, transitioned from smoking to vaping in countries like Japan, Iceland and Britain.

In Britain, public health agencies have given fairly staunch support to vaping. Of 3.2 million British vapers (in a population several times smaller than the US), just over half–that’s more than 1.6 million people–are former smokers who have quit altogether. Roughly 45 percent combine e-cig use with smoking, in most cases reducing their use of combustible tobacco; quitting smoking is by far the biggest reason given by vapers for taking up vaping. Fewer than 5 percent of vapers are people who have never smoked. The net gain for public health is huge.

But those facts don’t fit the hate-on-Juul template. Glantz, Meyers and their luddite anti-vaping crusade–enthusiastically supported by most media–will, if successful, leave only combustible tobacco available for purchase.

Instead of bullying and vilifying Juul, everyone should be supportive and proud of anyone who dreams big, takes risks and creates innovative products with the potential to make cigarettes a relic of the past.

Helen Redmond

Helen is Filter's senior editor and a multimedia journalist. She is on the methadone, vaping and nicotine train. Helen is also a filmmaker. Her two documentaries about methadone are Liquid Handcuffs and Swallow THIS. As an LCSW, she has worked with people who use drugs for over two decades. Helen is an adjunct assistant professor and teaches a course about the War on Drugs at NYU. She lives in Harlem.

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