A Deep Dive into Juul's Bizarre Plan to Teach Students About Vaping

This is embarrassing.

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Nov 5 2018, 5:00am

In the 1980s, Philip Morris and Reynolds were in a battle for new (read: young and healthy) customers that ended with Reynolds importing the cartoon character Joe Camel from Europe. The rivalry was one that Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the Center for Tobacco Control, Research, and Education at the University of California-San Francisco told me amounted to "leap-frogging each other until it was obvious they were targeting 12 year olds."

After an outcry, tobacco companies attempted damage control by promoting curriculums to public schools promising, among other things, to teach kids to wait until they were adults to decide if they wanted to pick up smoking. Of course, subsequent studies found that not only did these programs not work, they subtly promoted cigarette use. The findings didn't stop companies like Philip Morris from working to promote something called Life Skills Training (LST): As recently as 2009, the University of Colorado at Boulder accepted $12.1 million in grant money to put on LST programs in area middle schools—a move for which the institution was harshly criticized.

Over the past year, Juul Labs—the company with a $15 billion valuation that's under enormous scrutiny for powering what experts have called a new public health crisis—borrowed a page from Big Tobacco's playbook. It did not go well.

As Buzzfeed News reported, the vaping behemoth offered schools consultants to teach a curriculum about e-cigarettes, in some cases dangling between $10,000 and $20,000 to help administrators implement it. That revelation came after an article in the Journal of Adolescent Health shined a spotlight on the since-scuttled curriculum project and suggested the materials failed to address the role Juul plays in marketing its product to teens, and in fact barely mentioned their products at all.

None of the schools Buzzfeed reached out to accepted the offer for help teaching kids about vapes. This isn't surprising after looking at the materials Juul was shopping around.

"I think they pulled materials from a lot of different places without looking at them," Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a developmental psychologist at Stanford who co-authored the piece in the Journal of Adolescent Health, told me.

In fact, the slides and classroom exercises were worse than what you might expect from a middle-schooler pulling an all-nighter on an Earth Science presentation. It's frankly insane that a company worth so much money apparently couldn't be bothered to hire someone with a bachelor's degree in some sort of English or communications-adjacent field—or at least someone capable of crafting a presentation that wasn't full of strange grammatical inconsistencies and obvious stock art. (When reached for comment, a Juul spokesperson did not offer information about who created the materials, but insisted the company was opposed to any young person using its products and said Juul stopped distributing the curriculum "in response to feedback from those who thought our efforts were being misunderstood.")

It's not hard to imagine why. One section, ostensibly about the social pressure teens might feel to use Juul, included an exercise in which groups of students were to be given bowls of candy. The instructor was supposed to make an excuse to step out of the room and ask the kids to not eat any of the treats while they were gone. Unbeknownst to the larger group, designated actors were then supposed to try and convince the kids to eat the candy. When the instructor came back, teachers were meant to reveal that the whole thing was a social experiment, and the kids were to be encouraged to talk openly about why they joined the theft, or not.

It's unclear what the hell any of that might have had to do with Juuling.

That same class session was also meant to present a set of examples about good and bad peer pressure that young people regularly might face. Examples of good pressure were said to include incentives toward decent behavior—"being honest helps people trust you," one reads in a factually accurate if not exactly revelatory statement. Another, "listening to rap music," just seemed like an unfinished thought. (For adults, examples of peer pressure were said to include: "waxing parts of your body," "get a job with a well-known company," and "for women, being ultra-thin."

Another exhibit included a PowerPoint presentation with each slide covering an example of something widely believed that science has proved isn't true, such as the myth that ulcers are caused by stress and not bacteria, that the Earth is flat, or that kids shouldn't get vaccines. "FACT: Climate change is real," reads one of slide of the presentation, which ends on the discussion question, "What can we do to get more people to believe in science?"

Again, while it's vaguely encouraging Juul Labs apparently wanted young people vaping in and out of class to grasp climate science, what this had to do with their product and any attendant health implications was less than clear.

Then there was a section concerned with mindfulness, which centered on boilerplate audio you might expect from a meditation app, as well as instructions for a bizarre exercise that involved having students try to move pendulums with their minds. That experiment was particularly concerning to Halpern-Felsher, the co-author of that recent article exposing the strange curriculum.

"There's no evidence it does anything, and there's certainly no evidence it reduces smoking," she told me. "The idea of teachers performing the hypnosis is even more ridiculous."

According to a June 2002 article co-authored by Glantz from the American Journal of Public Health, the previous wave of youth tobacco awareness programs were developed not only as a response to public scrutiny, but also because Big Tobacco faced the threat of legislation or regulation. That's another way in which Juul has followed in the footsteps of its forebears: California plaintiffs and Massachusetts' attorney general have accused the company of targeting teens with its ads. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) cracked down on Juul sales to minors in April, and the company was given a 60-day deadline last month to demonstrate how youth access might be reined in.

For its part, the company has vehemently denied allegations it goes after kids. In June, Tevi Troy, Juul's vice president of public policy and the former deputy secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush, went on Politico podcast "Pulse Check" to tout Juul Labs's secret shopper program, which targets retailers selling to minors. There, he argued the product was a net public health benefit because it helped adult smokers switch from old-school tobacco. In a statement released after the FDA threat, the company's chief executive officer said Juul wanted "to be a part of the solution in preventing underage use."

Experts like Glantz aren't buying it. After all, if they were only targeting adult smokers, Juul would be massively limiting its own growth potential. But the fact that Juul appeared to put so little effort into its so-called curriculum was telling on its own.

"If you look at [Juul's] social media and marketing, it's beyond slick," Glantz told me, contrasting that stuff with the joke of a curriculum the company dangled and then withdrew. "This reflects the fact that they're not serious about it."

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