How Lawmakers Have Missed the Target on Juul Regulations

Courtesy of NY Times

Written by Adam Xie

Donald Glover, during an interview after the retiring of his artist persona “Childish Gambino,” said, “If you’re not fulfilling the thing that you started to do and now you become something else… why are you doing it anymore?” This quote, though targeted at his own music, has often been analogized across industries. Time and time again, projects with focused and concise visions become lost in growth and popularity and, slowly but surely, betray their original mission. Fast and Furious, a series meant to highlight the thrill of fast cars, now mimics a budget Mission Impossible in order to capture a larger audience interested in general action movies. DJ Marshmello strayed from his future bass roots and collaborated with hip pop artists to reach those outside of his usual EDM crowd.

However, no example holds truer than Juul. The company, which had the original goal of assisting smokers with quitting through an e-cigarette device, now finds itself in a legal and social brawl surrounding its implicit marketing to non-smoking minors. Though the product has proven useful for a more niche segment that demands convenient ‘nicotine fixes’, it has reached consumer groups beyond its original target. Today, more than 3.6 million middle and high schoolers use the product, many of whom are unaware of the health risks associated with it. Though the company denies actively promoting the product to teenagers, its advertisements and marketing strategies, focused on ascending social strata, have resonated with younger age groups.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and federal regulators have rapidly hopped on this issue but have missed the point. Under the impression that young kids are more likely to experiment with fruity and sweet flavors, regulators incorrectly focused on removing these flavors from shelves and making them only available for purchase online by those over the age of 21. However, this initiative failed to consider market alternatives and the broader reasons that teens have become so attached to the product.

An analysis of data collected by the Texas Adolescent Tobacco and Marketing Surveillance System (TATAMS) has found that the greatest risk factors lie in social and normative influences. Teenagers resonate with Juuls because they believe that it helps them fit in and gain social status, which is especially exploitable in this formative period in their lives. Failing to properly fund or create initiatives to address these misleading advertisements of e-cigarettes was a missed opportunity for federal regulators. Beyond this, teenagers can still use competitors’ products to feed their habits, with some even switching their Juul pods with vaping fluid to achieve the fruity tastes they crave. Some analysts have even gone as far to say that government regulation will limit competition for Juul and ultimately help their business, suggesting that these regulations pose more as barriers to entry for competitors than deterrents for the company itself.

With the experience and success regulating traditional tobacco products in recent years, federal regulators must learn from the past and move forward with initiatives that have proven success records. Limiting advertisements, campaigning about negative health effects, and taxing products are all strategies that have worked in affecting consumer demand and can be relied on in a time of crisis. Juul has shown how a lack of regulation can lead a positive goal astray, but it is time for regulators to pull in the reigns and ensure that the product is kept away from minor populations, at least those who do not possess adequate information to make an optimal decision.

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