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America’s Vaping Problem

E-cigarette companies, which occupy a market valued at $11 billion, are now under fire for business malpractice as well as misleading and unscrupulous marketing. Much of the backlash has been targeted towards Juul, an e-cigarette company with a valuation of nearly $38 billion, whose vape pod flavors range from fruits to desserts to tobacco. After stunning reports of around 500 vaping-related illnesses and six deaths potentially linked to vaping, concerns over the e-cigarette industry and its practices have grown exponentially. As a result, state governments have begun to ban flavored e-cigarettes, while the federal government is weighing a national ban on flavored e-cigarettes and nicotine pods. A ban of this magnitude would shake the relatively unregulated e-cigarette industry to its core. 

A prohibition on vaping would serve to incentivize a black market for e-cigarettes in which doctored or harmful products would flow to users without oversight. The best solution going forward is to allow the e-cigarette industry to exist while increasing regulation that would prevent companies from advertising vaping products as a “healthier” alternative to cigarettes. Additionally, regulation must disincentivize usage among minors through limits on targeted advertising and the accessibility of flavored pods.

Much of the discourse surrounding e-cigarettes has been centered around the usage by minors and the use of vaping as a healthier alternative to cigarettes. Juul began as a company focused on creating a “sleek new electronic cigarette” that would spread across social media. Sales campaigns that touted flavored pods like “crème brûlée and cool cucumber,” social media campaigns, and sponsorships of music events were used to lure an unprecedented number of young people to Juul and other e-cigarette companies

Juul representatives have even made their way into schools to teach an “anti-vaping curriculum,” a tactic that cigarette companies used in the 20th century. These representatives have been quoted as telling students that Juul was “totally safe” and that a student “should mention Juul to his friend because that’s a safer alternative than smoking.”A December 2018 study by the National Institutes of Health found that 37% of high school seniors had vaped in the past year, while another survey showed that 11 percent of 12th graders, 8.2 percent of 10th graders and 3.5 percent of eighth graders had vaped in the last month. These numbers are startling and attest to the dishonest and targeted marketing techniques of companies like Juul that have appealed to a younger population. To combat the perception that it markets to minors, Juul removed its fruit flavors from retail stores last year. 

Unfortunately, young users of e-cigs simply switched to the mint, menthol, or tobacco flavors that can still be found in many stores. Juul makes money on each sale of their product, no matter how old the customer actually is; therefore, it is against its interest to take substantive action to curb youth e-cigarette use. Government regulation is necessary to ensure that a profit-seeking corporation does not overlook the health consequences of the product. Juul representatives have stated that the “FDA was about to come out and say it was 99% safer than cigarettes.” Juul, with campaigns like “Make the Switch” furthered this narrative. In reality, in September of this year, the FDA actually accused Juul of illegally marketing its products as a safer alternative to cigarettes. Additionally, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested that e-cigarettes should not be used to quit cigarettes.

The e-cigarette industry, and Juul in particular, present a health threat and have operated with little regulation. Now, however, the government must introduce regulations in order to control the practices of companies in this growing industry. In response to the health crisis and business malpractice by Juul, states have begun to institute their own bans on flavored e-cigarettes. Michigan issued a complete ban on flavored e-cigarettes while Massachusetts is in a testing phase for a four-month ban. On the federal level, the Trump administration is considering a similar ban on the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes. A federally mandated prohibition would sharply cut sales and most likely put a large portion of the 20,000 vape and smoke shops that have been created in recent years out of business. These stores have generated almost 50,000 jobs and economic growth. A blanket approach of completely banning an industry is also unnecessary; strict regulation is the most effective way to protect public health and limit usage by young people. 

The e-cigarette industry is relatively new and largely unregulated. In the 1960s, the cigarette industry was in a similar place. By 1967, the Department of Agriculture concluded that on average, each American was smoking around 215 packs of cigarettes per year. Today, cigarette smoking is at a record low. Following major research detailing the health impact of smoking, government regulation began to take hold in the form of increased taxation and limits on advertising. Big Tobacco was forced to comply with these new regulations, and cigarette smoking has declined ever since. A similar approach can be taken with Juul and flavored e-cigarettes.

As a first step, Juul and other e-cigarette companies must stop marketing to minors through their flavored pods in stores. All flavors should be consigned to Juul’s online operation where barriers to access are much higher. Juul’s marketing and outreach efforts have appealed to minors in a startling manner through a social media-driven approach showcasing a flavored product that is safer than cigarettes, causing widespread youth nicotine addiction. States can also raise the age to buy tobacco products, as New York did when it increased its age from 18 to 21. Regions with tobacco-21 laws experienced a 39% decline in smoking among 18 to 20 year-olds when compared to regions without a tobacco-21 law. Thus, steps like this can reduce the age at which people begin to use e-cigarette products and offset much of the damaging health effects that have been seen in many recent cases of sickness among e-cigarette users.

The second aspect of e-cigarette reform involves changes in the marketing, advertising, and outreach efforts of companies like Juul. This must start with companies ceasing to present e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to cigarettes. Without FDA approval or any long-term study showcasing this trend, companies should not tout their products as a way to wean smokers off of cigarettes or as a healthier version of cigarettes. Campaigns such as “Make the Switch” should end. Additionally, more research must be done in order to definitively confirm the extent to which cigarettes are worse than or equal to e-cigarettes. This research should be conducted by an unbiased party that has no ties to the e-cigarette industry. 

The federal government has already taken a lead in funding e-cigarette research, and these efforts must continue. Bans in many states are reacting to stories of health consequences but without research, long-term prohibitions are not justified. On the advertising side, the placements of ads must be consigned to a limited number of outlets. Cigarettes are not allowed to be featured on billboards or in commercials, and it may be valuable to do the same thing for e-cigarettes. Above all, regulation and new approaches must be able to take e-cigarettes out of the hands of minors, de-incentivize usage for minors, and no longer promote e-cigarettes as a healthier alternative to cigarettes.

Photo: Image via Aaron Yoo (Flickr)