In a lounge at the Sundance Film Festival last year, Juul Labs Inc. doled out $1 bundles of e-cigarettes to guests passing through. A-listers, including
and Black Eyed Peas frontmanwill.i.am, stopped in front of a Juul-branded backdrop and posed for photographs.
On its face this was standard marketing practice, cozying up to celebrities to lend cachet to the brand. But by this time, Juul was already aware of teen use of its products, having learned about it in local media reports. In response, it had banned sales on its website to anyone under 21 and put together a teen prevention program to pitch to schools. The Sundance event in January 2018 was evidence to some that Juul was more interested in being seen as cool than it was in its stated mission of offering adult smokers an alternative to cigarettes.
Juul’s efforts to court celebrities and social-media influencers are part of a range of practices under investigation by both the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission.
“Juul engaged in a wide variety of promotional activities and outreach efforts to persuade potential customers, including youth, to use Juul products,”
director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, wrote in a recent letter to Juul’s chief executive, seeking more information on its influencer program and other marketing.
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Juul says it never targeted underage users and it has since taken additional steps to curb youth vaping. It has overhauled its marketing, closed its U.S. Facebook and Instagram accounts, and stopped selling in U.S. retail stores the sweet and fruity flavors that health officials say are appealing to kids.
“We don’t want this to be a glamorous lifestyle product,” co-founder
told The Wall Street Journal in August 2018. “This is a serious product with a serious purpose.”
As sales of Juul took off in 2017, the number of Juul-related posts on Instagram,
and other social media exploded, according to an analysis by Georgia State University researchers. That likely reflected the brand’s growing popularity as well as aggressive promotion by the company, its retailers and fans, including high-school and college kids, said
a Georgia State associate professor of health management and policy, and lead author of the analysis.
One-quarter of users who shared tweets from the official @JUULvapor Twitter account between February 2017 and January 2018 were under 18, according to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health led by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
In 2018, as regulators began scrutinizing the company, Juul ramped up its pursuit of movie stars and musicians who might promote the brand through word-of-mouth or be photographed on the street with a Juul in hand.
In May 2018, a month after the FDA launched its probe, Juul created a VIP portal for celebrities on its website, offering codes that let celebrities order vaporizers and refill packs for $1 apiece. Thousands of dollars of essentially free merchandise was sent to stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and modelBella Hadid, according to people familiar with the matter.
Juul confirmed those celebrities were among at least a dozen who received discount codes. Juul said it required those who used the portal to agree not to promote Juul to children or teens under the legal smoking age. The company said it invited to the portal only celebrities it had identified as having already used the product.
The celebrities weren’t asked in exchange to promote the brand or to give Juul permission to use their names.
Before the celebrity portal was launched, a Juul employee reached out to
the rapper and actress who goes by the name Awkwafina, offering discount codes after hearing her mention Juul in a podcast, according to internal documents.
“WOW—thank you so much for the codes!!” Ms. Lum replied. “I will forever and always rant about how much I love Juul and how it saved my life. Anything I can do to push it out.”
In the spring of last year, Ms. Lum recordeda video testimonial for Juul. And in an Oct. 30, 2018, tweet from Juul’s official account, Ms. Lum said: “I don’t think I could ever pick up a cigarette ever again.” She was 29 at the time.
Ms. Lum’s representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Underage vaping has continued to climb and the San Francisco startup is under scrutiny on several fronts. The FDA is preparing to pull from the market most flavors of e-cigarettes, a move that would wipe out products representing more than 80% of Juul’s U.S. sales.
Meanwhile, Juul is the subject of several investigations, includinga criminal probe by federal prosecutors in California, the Journal has reported.
This week, the companyreplaced its chief executiveand said it would suspend all product advertising in the U.S. Juul also said it had decided not to push back against the administration’s planned ban on all e-cigarettes except those formulated to taste like tobacco. Juul said its new CEO is reviewing its practices and policies.
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