By Chris Kirkham and Bryan Pietsch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – E-cigarette maker Juul Labs Inc funded a “holistic health education” camp as part of efforts to market directly to school-aged children, members of a U.S. congressional panel said on Thursday, citing internal company documents.
Democrats on a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform released a cache of internal Juul emails and other documents that committee staff described as early attempts to “enter schools and convey its messaging directly to teenage children.”
Juul’s use of social media influencers to promote its vaping devices in the years after it launched in 2015 also came under scrutiny.
James Monsees, Juul’s co-founder and chief product officer, told the committee that the company’s target audience from the beginning has been adult cigarette smokers.
Among efforts cited in the Juul documents released were a $134,000 payment to set up a five-week “holistic health education” summer camp at a Maryland charter school, recruiting children from third through 12th grades, and offering $10,000 to schools using the company’s “youth prevention and education” programs for students, including those caught using e-cigarette products.
“You don’t think that sounds strange at all?” Representative Katie Hill, a Democrat, asked Juul’s chief administrative officer, Ashley Gould.
“All of these educational efforts were intended to keep youth from using the product,” Gould responded. When Juul realized how the school involvement could be perceived as negative, “we stopped the program,” she said.
In a statement after the hearing, Juul said the $134,000 donation was to “facilitate already-existing community outreach and youth-prevention programs,” and said the company “did not have any direct interaction with the students.”
Several committee members said Juul’s initiatives appeared similar to past efforts by the tobacco industry to reach young people under the guise of smoking prevention programs. Gould said Juul, which is 35 percent owned by Marlboro maker Altria Group Inc <MO.N>, halted its program last year once it became aware of the tobacco industry’s past moves.
Caleb Mintz, 17, a New York city high school student, testified at a separate hearing on Wednesday that a Juul representative came to his school as part of an educational program on mental health and addiction last year. He said in an interview Thursday that students received “mixed messages” about the product, being told it was safe but not to buy it.
Mintz said after the hearing that the Juul presentation seemed to be “playing to the side of teens as rebellious. When a teen is told not to do something, they’re more likely to do it.”
Members of the committee also quizzed Gould and Monsees over the use of social media influencers to promote Juul’s vaping devices.
Company executives early on agreed that “younger consumers age 25 to 34 was going to be the target of our initial campaign,” Monsees said. “They would be more receptive to new technology solutions,” such as the Juul device.
Amid an enormous uptick in teenage use of e-cigarettes in 2018 — a 78% increase among high school students from 2017 to 2018, according to federal data — Juul said it ended all social media advertising last fall. Juul also pulled many flavored nicotine pods, except mint, menthol and tobacco, from retail stores, which Monsees said represented more than half of the company’s sales at that time.
(Reporting by Chris Kirkham in Los Angeles and Bryan Pietsch in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler)