From its launch in 2015, experts, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, say Juul targeted millennials and Generation Z, the vast majority of whom are under 18. Juul promoted parties, hosted vapor lounges at music festivals like Nocturnal Wonderland, and invested heavily in social media advertising through sponsored content on Twitter and Instagram. The posts featured young, attractive models paired with taglines like “The freedom of a #JUULmoment” and “Share a #JUULmoment” (many such ads have since been deleted).
The advertising took off in a way that print ads never could. Teens started posting photos and videos of themselves blowing vape rings, vaping multiple Juuls at once, and tricking friends into hitting a USB stick (Juul resembles a flash drive)—all tagged with #juul, #juulnation, and #doitforjuul. Juul hashtags quickly took over Instagram and Twitter, so much so that accounts now tag unrelated posts with #juul just to get more views.
“Whatever the intent of the Juul people are, whatever they claim, it’s impossible to believe that they didn’t realize that kind of imagery and these kinds of flavors were likely to appeal to kids,” says Myers.
“It’s not just the ads that are getting kids hooked — it’s the flavors.”
Juul, like most e-cigarette companies, says its product is intended to be used as a cigarette substitution therapy by smokers who are trying to quit and claims it never deliberately targeted teens with advertisements. (Juul turned down multiple requests to comment for this article). However, a New York Times interview with an anonymous former senior manager from Juul suggests the company knew its ad campaigns would appeal to teens. He also said that Juul was aware teens were buying the devices as early as 2015. Juul is currently being sued by a mother who says her 15-year-old son became addicted to nicotine because of the product.
But it’s not just the ads that are getting kids hooked—it’s the flavors.
Flavored cigarettes have been banned by the federal government since 2009 because of their appeal to children, but other types of tobacco products were not included in the ruling. Although e-cigarettes like Juul do not technically contain any tobacco, the nicotine they deliver is derived from the plant, so they are classified by the FDA as a tobacco product but not a cigarette. E-cigarette companies have exploited this loophole and developed thousands of flavor variations, many of them sweetened with sucralose to make them taste better. Sweet flavors are not unique to Juul—other companies offer e-liquid flavors like sour candy worms and “unicorn poop”—but Juul plays right along with mango, crème brûlée, and cool cucumber pods (recently changed to creme and cucumber after pressure from the FDA).
This month, the FDA cracked down on e-cigarette retailers and manufacturers for selling and marketing to minors by issuing more than 1,300 warning letters and fines as part of a “nationwide, undercover blitz.” The agency also gave the top five e-cigarette brands, including Juul, 60 days to submit plans describing how they will combat underage use of their products, explicitly mentioning the issue of flavors. If they fail to do so, the FDA warned it would consider revoking the companies’ ability to sell their products. The action comes after the FDA ordered online retailers in May to change the labeling and advertising of e-liquids “resembling kid-friendly food products such as candy and cookies.”
Multiple recent studies have found that teens overwhelmingly start vaping using flavored e-liquids (candy and fruit flavors are the favorites), and flavor is the second-biggest reason they try vaping after curiosity. Perhaps most damning, one recent report suggested that if e-cigarettes didn’t come in flavors, more than 75 percent of teen and young adult vapers would no longer use them.
“They’re making the negative aspects of the drug less aversive and more rewarding to children by making it taste better.”
This is not to say that adults don’t like flavored e-cigarettes (they do), but scientists say young people’s brains are specifically wired to prefer the taste of sweet. “Children, especially during periods of growth, prefer sweets. It’s to attract you to energy while you’re growing,” explains Julie Mennella, a faculty member at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. “I don’t think that the addition of [sucralose] in these candy-like flavors was just by chance. They’re making the negative aspects of the drug less aversive and more rewarding to children by making it taste better.”
Sweet and bitter flavors are shown to counteract each other in the brain, with sweet tastes blocking bitter sensations. In e-cigarettes, this means the sweet flavors mask the bitter taste of nicotine. Sweet tastes also blunt feelings of pain by tapping into the brain’s opioid system—the same network activated by morphine and heroin to relieve pain and provide pleasure. In Mennella’s studies, children who are given sugar water can hold their hands in ice water for longer, and some doctors recommend giving infants a sweet syrup before drawing blood so they’ll experience less pain. It’s possible, health experts argue, that sweet flavors in e-cigarettes could temper the initial harshness and discomfort of inhaling vapor.
“The first time you try a tobacco product, the extent to which you like it or not will be a big determinant as to whether you’ll continue,” says Adam Leventhal, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. “An unflavored product might be more aversive and bitter to youth. If you add a flavor on top of that, that might potentially mask or reverse the bitterness or even the sensory harshness of the product, then you might be able to tolerate it better and get past the initial point.”
Sweetness is also reinforcing in and of itself, activating the same dopamine reward system in the brain as addictive drugs like cocaine and nicotine. In fact, there’s evidence that sweet tastes and nicotine magnify one another’s reinforcing qualities and combined are more rewarding than either one alone. A recent study showed that e-cigarette smokers had greater activation in the nucleus accumbens—a key reward center in the brain that has been used to predict drug use and relapse—in response to sweet-flavored e-cigarettes than to sweet flavors without nicotine or to nicotine on its own.
Dana Small, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine who led the research, says that some people actually disliked vaping the nicotine on its own, but when it was paired with the sweet flavor “they went from disliking to liking,” she says. “In those individuals who might have formed a negative preference or aversion to the e-cigarette, this [sweet taste] shifted it into the positive.”