October 21, 2018

Stanton A. Glantz, PhD

JUUL following the cigarette companies’ lead in claiming they don’t want kids to smoke

JUUL, the e-cigarette that looks like a flash drive, is really efficient at delivering the addictive drug nicotine, and now dominates the kid market, is mirroring what the cigarette companies have done for decades in now claiming that they don’t want kids to smoke and promoting their own “youth smoking prevention” program.

As Jessica Liu and Bonnie Halpern-Felsher just pointed out in an insightful commentary published in Journal of Adolescent Health, “The JUUL curriculum is not the jewel of tobacco prevention education,” that the JUUL curricula looks just like similar curricula that the cigarette companies promoted since the 1980s whenever they felt pressure on the kids’ issue.  As Liu and Halpern-Felsher note, the JUUL curriculum

  • Blames kids and parents for kids’ JUUL use
  • Does not stress that JUUL delivers nicotine, an addictive drug
  • Ignores the role of JUUL’s advertising and social media promotions in the exploding youth use
  • Does not forthrightly address the importance of the flavors that JUUL uses to attract and hold kids

If JUUL was serious they would drop flavors and stop their social marketing efforts.

One thing that Liu and Halpern-Felsher do not mention is JUUL’s hiring of former school officials to promote their curriculum and paying schools to use it.  This is another well-established cigarette company practice that Lev Mandel, Stella Bialous, and I described in our 2006 paper based on previously secret internal tobacco industry documents, “Avoiding "truth": tobacco industry promotion of life skills training.”  

These issues are particularly important in light of a second paper that Bonnie Halper-Felsher and her colleagues just published in JAMA Network Open, Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Use and Perceptions of Pod-Based Electronic Cigarettes,” that showed that JUUL is dominating the youth market as well as how important flavors are for kids. 

All of this is happening against a backdrop where even the FDA is getting worried about kids’ e-cigarette use.  Unfortunately, so far FDA’s response is to write the major e-cig companies (including JUUL) and asking them what the companies plan to do to reduce youth use.  Given what we know about how the industry (both cigarettes and, now, JUUL) uses these “youth smoking prevention” programs to avoid meaningful regulation, this is not just asking the fox to guard the henhouse.  FDA is asking the fox to build the henhouse.

If FDA wants to do something real to reduce the epidemic of youth JUUL use, it should use its authority to prohibit he use flavors in e-cigarettes now

The FDA could also accept the strong and consistent evidence that, for most people, e-cigarettes make it harder for people (youth and adults) to quit smoking. Continuing to support that myth may contribute to the positive attitudes that kids have about e-cigs (documented in the Halpern-Felsher JAMA Network Open paper).

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