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Juul Allegedly Knew Teens Were Using Its Products Since 2015

The allegation has been the basis of lawsuits, probes, and crackdowns – now a former company employee says it's true.
29 August 2018, 8:00am
Photographer Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Back in June, some parents filed a federal lawsuit against JUUL Labs claiming that their 15-year-old son was "unable to stop vaping," an addiction that they argued could have been avoided had the company not made its products so appealing to teens.

"I really think JUUL's responsible for this," the family's attorney, Jason Solotaroff, told VICE about a month after the suit was filed. "They could have marketed their product like patches, or very pharmaceutical-like. Instead they marketed it as this cool accessory that everybody had to have."

And while Juul has denied intentionally trying to court teens and bumped up the legal age to buy its products from 18 to 21, the New York Times reports that the company knew as early as 2015 that minors were using its devices, but didn't do anything about it until it started to get called out at least a year later.

The story that came out in the Times on Monday revolves around an anonymous former senior manager at Juul Labs who said that the company noticed early on that people were buying its devices in bulk. The company reportedly started to suspect those additional vapes were being resold to teens around the fall of 2015 because minors were posing with them on social media. It apparently took the company a year to re-orient its marketing away from the trendy "vaporized" campaign (which, full disclosure, appeared in VICE Magazine). As of January 2017, the company decided to make all of the models in its advertisements older than 35.

In April, the FDA announced a undercover "blitz" to catch retailers that were selling Juul products to minors. It also requested a bevy of information from Juul Labs related to product marketing and "whether certain product design features, ingredients, or specifications appeal to different age groups," according to a press release. In July, the Massachusetts attorney general announced a probe into the company, specifically citing "sweet flavors" as evidence that Juul's mission was to hook kids "for life" as opposed to convert older customers who are used to smoking Marlboros.

Juul has made some overtures in response, like changing the names of the products' flavors to seem less candy-like. It's also promised to produce pods that contain less nicotine, thought that move seems like it could potentially entice even more teens to try Juul, because they might perceive the risk to be lower.

Still, the fact that the company was allegedly—at least at one point—complicit in getting teens addicted to nicotine is probably a shock to no one. In response to the report, company co-founder James Monsees told the Times it's his responsibility to serve his investors above all else. Though, he seems to be sticking to the line that he's committed to keeping teens, like the one mentioned in the parents' lawsuit, from getting their hands on Juul going forward.

"Yes, I want to make money,” he said. "I’m on the board with a fiduciary duty that obligates me to make money. [But] the best investor return in the long term comes from more adults turning away from combustible cigarettes."

It's unclear how these goals can coexist, or how this revelation will affect the various lawsuits currently plaguing Juul, and therefore the company's ability to operate.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.