Extracting Juul Settlement Is About the Money, Not the Truth

    Juul is back in the news, this time for tentatively agreeing to pay a whopping $438.5 million in a multistate agreement to settle numerous allegations (without admitting wrongdoing) related to youth vaping. The money is to be paid out over a period of six to 10 years.

    In a September 6 press release, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, who led the investigation and negotiations, stated, “They relentlessly marketed vaping products to underage youth, manipulated their chemical composition to be palatable to inexperienced users… misled consumers about the nicotine content and addictiveness of its products.” At a news conference he intoned, “We are under no illusions and cannot claim that [the settlement agreement] will stop youth vaping. It continues to be an epidemic. It continues to be a huge problem.”

    The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Not so much.

    It is deeply disturbing that an attorney general in a high-profile case can get away with peddling these lies of omission, wild exaggerations and outright falsehoods. Moreover, it implicates how biased and disingenuous the two-year investigation of Juul was. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Not so much.

    The teen vaping “epidemic” has never existed. It was an invention of rabidly anti-vaping organizations, most notably the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the Truth Initiative and Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes (PAVe). Flush with cash and connections at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), they whipped up a national drug panic that targeted Juul.

    The reality is, youth experimentation with Juul vapes was a trend that cratered over the course of four years. The decline is well-documented by studies from the federal government. High school vaping increased from 12 percent in 2017 to 27 percent in 2019, but by 2021, the rate dropped to 11 percent.  This is an amazing 58 percent fall in high school vaping from its peak in 2019. Those figures include any use in the past 30 days; daily use was only ever a fraction of the whole. And most importantly, high school smoking rates have plummeted from 8 percent to 2 percent.

    These numbers should be celebrated and widely disseminated in the mainstream media and to every state AG office. But they aren’t, because it would undermine the narrative of a teen vaping epidemic fueled by Juul (actually, those teens who still vape these days prefer disposables made by other companies).

    AG Tong engages in classic fear-based messaging around nicotine as if it were a dangerous drug. The effects of nicotine are similar to those of caffeine. He claims that Juul misled consumers about nicotine content and that it “manipulated the chemical composition to be more palatable to inexperienced users.” Tong offers no evidence. The vast majority of Juul users are current or former smokers, not “inexperienced users” of nicotine. The company has openly acknowledged that its scientists formulated the amount of nicotine in each pod to match that of cigarettes to help inveterate smokers make the switch—a positive thing, if you care about saving lives. It gives the lie to the widespread fiction that Juul tried to “addict a new generation of teens.”

    “The human cost of Juul’s targeting and marketing to kids cannot be quantified,” Berkman claimed.

    The millionaire moms of Manhattan who lead the Bloomberg-funded advocacy group PAVe, with their stated aim of taking Juul down, soon weighed in on the settlement agreement. Cofounder Meredith Berkman stated, “No amount of money can erase the harm caused by Juul’s targeting of and marketing to teens whose use of the company’s stealth-by-design flavored products led many kids to suffer severe nicotine addiction and physical harm.” Lies and exaggeration. There’s no evidence that Juul’s marketing strategy specifically targeted teens; hiring young (but not underage) models for print ads, holding launch parties, and selling the flavors that most adults prefer isn’t proof. As for their “stealth-by-design” vape, the founders of Juul deliberately designed it not to look like a cigarette to help adult smokers quit.

    Berkman, who co-hosts the misnamed podcast Big Tobacco Messed with the Wrong Moms,” loves to make sweeping, catastrophic predictions and takes it to a farcical level. “The human cost of Juul’s targeting and marketing to kids cannot be quantified,” she claimed. “It has had an enormous, destructive impact on the public health of an entire generation of kids, the public healthcare costs of which we will see unfold for decades to come.”

    What in the hell is she talking about? Most “kids” have never used a Juul! As the most recent National Youth Tobacco Survey shows, teen use has dropped dramatically, and the vast majority vape occasionally and for fun, to be cool or rebellious, to enhance performance or mood. Millions then matured out of use. So where is the enormous, destructive impact of vaping on an “entire generation” of kids when most of them quit?

    It’s not about the teens who have mostly quit vaping and smoking, it’s about the money.

    When AG Tong said, “We have essentially taken a big chunk out of what was once a market leader,” he revealed the real motive behind the litigation—extracting hundreds of millions from Juul. The company has been relentlessly vilified by corporate media outlets like the New York Times and scapegoated by powerful, regulatory federal agencies from the FDA to the CDC and even the US Congress for the so-called “teen vaping epidemic.” This all-out war against Juul put the company’s very existence in peril; a coalition of 39 state attorneys general took advantage of the situation and moved in for a killer payout.

    Connecticut will receive $16.2 million of the settlement agreement funds, Oregon $18.8 million and Texas $42.8 million. Tong said Connecticut plans on using Juul money for “cessation, prevention and mitigation,” but don’t bet on it. If the Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement, signed in 1998 for $246 billion, is any guide, states will divert the money into initiatives that have nothing to do with the prevention of vaping or smoking. Since 2017, Connecticut has allocated $0 in state funding towards tobacco control programs. The last year the state spent any of its own money to stop youth vaping was 2016.

    It’s not about the teens who have mostly quit vaping and smoking, it’s about the money.

     


     

    Photograph by Helen Redmond

    The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received grants from Juul Labs, Inc. Filter‘s Editorial Independence Policy applies.

    • Helen is the senior editor of Filter. She has written about nicotine, mental health and drug policy for publications including Al Jazeera, AlterNet, Harper’s and The Influence. As an LCSW, she works with drug users in medical and community mental health settings. An expert on tobacco harm reduction, she provides training and consultation on mental health, nicotine use and THR, and in 2016 organized the first Tobacco Harm Reduction Conference in the US. Helen is also a documentary filmmaker.

    • Show Comments

    You May Also Like

    In 2018, the Temperance Movement Still Grips America

    Our society—even some of its most progressive elements—vilifies alcohol. This stands in opposition to ...