Juul Labs, the company behind the insanely popular vaping device, has a message for the nation’s estimated 37.8 million adult smokers:
It really, really, really cares about them. And it wants them (and only them — got that, teens?) to try vaping instead.
“For smokers. By design,” blares the company’s website. A new $10 million TV ad campaign, called “Make the Switch,” echoes that theme, featuring testimonials from ex-smokers, all comfortably above the legal smoking age, who have swapped their cigarettes for a Juul.
This benevolent-sounding mission — helping nicotine-addicted adult smokers switch to something far less likely to kill them — is Juul’s new pitch, and the way it hopes to rehabilitate its image as one of Silicon Valley’s most problematic start-ups.
You can’t fault Juul for trying. The company, which is valued at $38 billion, has been through the wringer lately, with regulators, public health advocates and concerned parents accusing it of fueling an epidemic of teenage nicotine addiction by marketing to young people with fruit-flavored pods, colorful youth-filled ads and social media campaigns. It has been sued by users and lambasted by lawmakers, and the Food and Drug Administration, which is investigating whether Juul’s marketing practices deliberately targeted underage users, conducted a surprise inspection of the company’s headquarters last year. (In November, Juul announced it would shut down its Instagram and Facebook accounts, and stop selling most flavored pods in stores.)
Adding to the concern is that last month, Juul took a $12.8 billion investment from Altria, the tobacco giant behind Marlboro and other popular brands, in exchange for 35 percent of the company.
Now, after making billions of dollars and joining forces with Big Tobacco, Juul is billing itself as a public-health crusader.
Juul is far from the first company to attempt a humanitarian makeover. Facebook, an outgrowth of a Harvard student’s juvenile attempt to quantify the attractiveness of his classmates, now claims to have been motivated by a virtuous impulse to connect the world; Uber, created by two tech entrepreneurs who wanted to zoom around San Francisco in luxury cars, later tried to convince people that it wanted to provide affordable mobility to the masses.
But in Juul’s case, revisionist history is particularly important, because the way Juul markets itself is central to the question of how it should be treated. Many consumers, investors and ethical technologists would rightly shun a company that knowingly targeted minors with harmful products, and cleaned up its act only after public pressure. But if you believe that Juul had a noble anti-cigarette mission all along, it’s easier to excuse its missteps as the product of innocent naïveté.
Unfortunately for Juul, plenty of evidence suggests that the company didn’t always take its public health agenda so seriously.
In 2015, in an interview with The Verge, Ari Atkins, a research and development engineer who helped create the original Juul, said that “we don’t think a lot about addiction here because we’re not trying to design a cessation product at all.”
He added that “anything about health is not on our mind.”
In other early interviews, James Monsees, Juul’s co-founder and chief product officer, played down the idea of a public health mission.
“We’re not an activist company,” he said in a 2014 interview. “If you don’t like what we’re making better than cigarettes, then have a cigarette, that’s fine.”
In an interview the next year, Mr. Monsees called Juul’s predecessor, a tobacco vaporizer known as Pax, “the dystopian future of tobacco,” and said the company’s vaporizing technology might someday find a market beyond cigarette smokers.
In a statement this week, Mr. Monsees said the company had been forced to be careful about its marketing. Under federal regulations, the company is allowed to bill its device as a “switching product” for smokers, but not as a smoking cessation tool or a health device. He said that while Juul “initiated campaigns in the past that we would not do today,” it was always focused on eliminating cigarettes.
“Since 2005, we have been focused on creating a product to help people switch away from smoking combustible cigarettes — the number one cause of preventable death in the world,” Mr. Monsees said. “That focus has been clear in the key milestone moments in the creation of the company — it is what we said in our 2005 Stanford graduation thesis and our first fund-raising letter in 2007.”
Juul’s founders did, in fact, talk about improving health as a motivating factor early in the company’s existence. In a 2007 email sent to potential investors, Adam Bowen, Juul’s other co-founder, mentioned wanting to “offer a new alternative for health-conscious smokers.” The pair’s graduate thesis presentation, delivered while they were studying at Stanford in 2005, pitches vaping as a healthier substitute for cigarettes.
But Juul’s public marketing told a different story. Few of the company’s early ads made any mention of cigarettes’ risks, or advocated for smokers to switch; most were focused on playing up vaping’s cool factor. As recently as 2017, the front page of the company’s website said nothing about switching from cigarettes at all, only that the Juul offered an “intensely satisfying vapor experience.”
Recently, Juul — now equipped with an army of lobbyists and a slick communications team that includes a former White House spokesman — has studiously revamped its image. Glossy profiles have been written about the company’s “lifesaving mission” and Juul’s new chief executive, Kevin Burns, has gotten on message, emphasizing the company’s focus on adult smokers.
This abrupt about-face has drawn skepticism from critics. Matthew L. Myers, the president of the antismoking advocacy group Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, characterized Juul’s new ad campaign as little more than a P.R. effort aimed at lawmakers and regulators.
“Juul has engaged in all the traditional tactics of a company that is trying to fend off meaningful regulation, rather than actually change their behavior,” Mr. Myers said. “That is classic Big Tobacco.”
For all the hand-wringing, no one is suggesting that Juul’s nicotine pods are less healthy than cigarettes, or that the company should stop marketing itself as a smoking alternative. There’s every reason to believe that vaping is significantly less harmful than smoking, and many adult smokers have in fact used Juul’s products to help them quit.
But motives matter. And Juul’s shifty self-presentation suggests that the company may not be acting entirely on the level.
Juul wants you to believe that it became a teenage sensation entirely by accident, that its products were only ever meant for adult smokers and that taking billions of dollars from Big Tobacco is consistent with the values of a company that has always put a priority on health over profits.
The truth is much hazier than that.