E-cigarette companies are currently fighting an uphill battle.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent a letter warning them against the way they were marketing their products. This is what they wrote to JUUL Labs, Inc. on September 9:
Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter to JUUL Labs Inc. for marketing unauthorized modified risk tobacco products by engaging in labeling, advertising, and/or other activities directed to consumers, including a presentation given to youth at a school. The agency also sent a letter to the company expressing concern, and requesting more information, about several issues raised in a recent Congressional hearing regarding JUUL’s outreach and marketing practices, including those targeted at students, tribes, health insurers and employers.
Juul responded later that month by hiring a new CEO and suspending all of their advertisements.
But this battle isn’t exactly a new one. Back in the 1960s, America was having similar conversations with tobacco companies.
“Cigarettes used to be marketed everywhere and you wouldn’t believe some of the claims that were being made,” said Darrin Duber-Smith, a marketing professor with Metropolitan State University of Denver. He has worked in the marketing industry for 36 years.
The first tobacco companies popped up in the United States in the mid-1800s. Nearly 100 years later in 1949, tobacco was the most heavily advertised product on network TV.
At the time, officials didn’t know cigarette smoking would be responsible for more than 480,000 deaths in the U.S. per year, according to the CDC.
Then in 1970, the government established the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1970. But that didn’t stop direct marketing, like the cartoon character Joe Camel in the 1980s and 1990s. The tobacco company behind the mascot was accused of attracting young people to their products.
Marketing professionals like Duber-Smith have watched as a new product has gained popularity. E-cigarettes were introduced to America in the mid-2000s.
The nicotine product was marketed as a safer option to cigarettes. But e-cig companies are attracting more than tobacco users looking to quit their habit.
“They’re doing a lot of what early tobacco companies did, which is glamorize the use of the product,” Duber-Smith said. “Even though it might be intended for adults, sort of like Joe Camel the cartoon character, it still might resonate with children and teenagers.”
“If you look at the coloring and the fonts and the whole positioning of the campaign it was clearly targeted direct to young adults,” Stanton Glantz said.
Glantz is a tobacco researcher at UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. He’s been studying the industry since 1978.
“They’re promoting their products as fun, as a way to affiliate with your friends,” he said.
The FDA noticed and intervened.
“I think the regulatory environment is now playing catch up and they are starting to look at this category as they’ve looked at the tobacco category,” Duber-Smith said. “And they are starting to see the youth addiction and that sort of thing.”
“They used all of the knowledge that the big cig companies developed in order to hook kids to design their product and their marketing campaigns,” Glantz said.
Juul responded by announcing it would pull all of its advertising.
“Brands operate in the world of public perception so Juul unfortunately is taking the brunt of this,” Duber-Smith said.
Only around 15 years passed between the time e-cigs came to America and when Juul stopped its marketing. But news of hundreds of vape-related lung illnesses and several deaths also came much more quickly than it did with cigarettes.
Just like tobacco companies, e-cig companies might soon see stricter regulations.
“A lot of it is going to come down to what the FDA does,” Glantz said.