Juul spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund youth programming, efforts that a company employee said “seem to duplicate those of big tobacco,” according to internal emails, memos and contracts released as part of a congressional investigation into the company.
Democratic members of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy presented the documents Thursday as part of an investigation into Juul’s role in “the youth vaping epidemic.”
The company “deployed a sophisticated program to enter schools and convey its messaging directly to teenage children,” committee staff wrote.
In one case, Juul paid $134,000 to sponsor a five-week “holistic health education” summer camp in Baltimore that “recruited from grades 3 through 12.”
According to a draft of that agreement, Juul would receive data on students, including test scores from assessments of “general health knowledge” and “risky behaviors,” although a spokesman said the company did not end up collecting the information.
Juul’s plans also included paying $10,000 to high schools that would “use the JUUL sponsored curriculum” during classes, according to a memorandum of understanding with at least one school district. That agreement allowed “JUUL Consultants” to observe classes and required the district to provide dates and times of sessions.
A Juul employee said in a now-public email that the company’s youth prevention efforts were “eerily similar” to those from “Big Tobacco.” Such programs have been used by tobacco companies to fend off regulation and “fight taxes, clean-indoor-air laws, and marketing restrictions worldwide,” despite no evidence they decrease smoking, according to an academic article that the Juul employee sent to a colleague.
Juul had a ‘sophisticated program to enter schools,’ lawmakers say
Juul said in a statement that the campaigns “were part of our short-lived Education and Youth Prevention Program which was ended in September 2018 after its purpose – to educate youth on the dangers of nicotine addiction – was clearly misconstrued.”
The company’s chief administrative officer, Ashley Gould, testified at a congressional hearing Thursday along with Juul’s co-founder and chief product officer, James Monsees.
Six schools received funding, Gould said, before the company ended the program. In a tense exchange at the hearing, Gould was asked by Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi whether she personally believed nicotine was harmful to users.
“Nicotine is an addictive substance,” Gould responded, reading from her notes. “In the (US Food and Drug Administration’s) own words, nicotine does not directly cause the estimated 480,000 deaths each year from smoking-related disease, and our product was designed to give – “
“So nicotine is not harmful, is that what you’re saying?” Krishnamoorthi interrupted.
“I didn’t say that,” replied Gould.
She pointed again to the FDA’s statement, to which Krishnamoorthi replied, “I know what the FDA says. I’m asking you. Do you believe nicotine is harmful?”
“I think FDA is the better source for that answer,” Gould said.
The FDA says that “nicotine exposure during adolescence can disrupt normal brain development and may have long-lasting effects, such as increased impulsivity and mood disorders,” but notes that “many studies suggest e-cigarettes may be less harmful than combustible cigarettes.”
Juul sought tens of thousands of influencers, documents show
An internal company newsletter from 2015 that was released by the House subcommittee shows that Juul “targeted 1,500 current smokers turned JUUL influencers to spread the word,” referring to popular social media users who endorse or post about brands. A future goal, according to the email, was “introducing JUUL to over 1.5M people” by getting the device “into the hands” of 12,500 influencers.
One marketing contract said a firm, Grit Creative Group, would “curate and identify 280 influencers in LA/NY to seed JUUL product to over the course of three months” and was signed by a manager at Pax Labs, the company that developed Juul before spinning it off.
Another contract, signed by managers at both Pax and Grit, said the firm “shall provide two ‘Social Buzzmakers’ for each of 6 events,” stipulating that each should have a minimum of 30,000 followers.
In a letter to the committee, however, the company “pointed to only four influencers” and said it did not have “a traditional celebrity or influencer program,” according to Democratic Rep. Katie Hill. Asked under oath about the potential discrepancy, Monsees said “it sounds like we’re getting into territory I’m not completely familiar with,” adding that he would look into it.
Asked by CNN about the conflicting numbers, a Juul spokesman said the number given to the committee – four influencers – only reflected those who were paid.
When asked if other influencers were compensated in different ways, the Juul spokesman said “several years ago, we reached out to existing adult users of JUUL Products, offering them discounts if they agreed to our terms of service which includes a prohibition on promoting our products to underage users.”
A CNN investigation in December shed light on the influencer program, which asked popular users to create “lifestyle content,” according to Christina Zayas, who was paid to post about Juul. Her profile is public, meaning that anybody on Instagram – including those under 18 – can see her posts.
’A marketer of poison’
Throughout the hearing, Democrats unloaded on Monsees, the Juul co-founder, while some Republican lawmakers defended his company.
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
“Followed the law, developed a product that people want, a product that’s gonna take us away from more harmful traditional cigarettes, a product that can actually help you phase off of using nicotine altogether, and somehow you’re a terrible guy,” Republican Rep. Jim Jordan said to Monsees.
Democratic Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, looking directly at the executive, saw it differently.
“You don’t ask for permission, you ask for forgiveness,” he said. “You’re nothing but a marketer of a poison, and your target has been young people.”