- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2018

It also criticizes federal researchers for failing to take into account the impact of advertising on these platforms and focusing instead on outdated modes of data collection.

“[Juul is] taking advantage of the reach and accessibility of those platforms to target the youth and young adults, basically everybody can see their product because there are no restrictions,” said Jidong Huang, an associate professor of health management and policy at Georgia State University and lead author of the study.

E-cigarette devices are loosely regulated on the federal level as public health officials weigh their benefits against their potential harms.

Their sales are prohibited to anyone under the age of 18, but companies have little to no restrictions on where they can advertise, compared to traditional cigarettes, which are barred from television and radio.

“It used to be the marketing on traditional media really played an important role for other tobacco products,” Mr. Huang said. “But for Juul, the fact is, the marketing and promotional on social media platforms plays a more important role for the growth of [the product].”

Juul is a sleek, palm-sized rectangular device that delivers a potent, flavored-nicotine vapor through its patented liquid cartridges. Its popularity and sales have exploded over the past three years, capturing over half of the retail e-cigarette market.

In April, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb issued a blistering attack on e-cigarette retailers, and Juul in particular, for failing to curb illegal sales to youth.

The FDA cited for violations brick-and-mortar and online retailers for the illegal underage sale of e-cigarettes and requested Juul hand over internal documents on its marketing strategies and appeal toward young people.

“We don’t yet fully understand why these products are so popular among youth,” Dr. Gottlieb said in a statement at the time. “But it’s imperative that we figure it out, and fast.”

For Mr. Huang, whose study was published Monday in the journal Tobacco Control, the answer is clear.

“They [Juul] quickly figured out the best way to promote their product is through social media platforms,” Mr. Huang said. “We know the vast majority of audience of those platforms are youth and young adults.”

In the study, Mr. Huang and his colleagues examined Juul activity on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube; the amount of money spent on traditional marketing and advertising; and how it related to total sales.

They found that between 2015 and 2017, the company slashed its marketing expenses — spending about $2.1 million over the three years. At the same time it heavily increased its presence on social media.

In 2015, there were an average of 765 Juul-related tweets a month. By 2017, that increased to 30,565.

This was highly correlated with the increase in sales, which amounted to annual sales of $650 million, the researchers wrote.

“A lot of people don’t believe that marketing and promotion on social media can make a difference in their sales. Our study really shows, actually, that sales of Juul is highly correlated with activities on social media platforms,” Mr. Huang said.

An estimated 2 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2016, a decline of almost 1 million students from the year before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But these numbers don’t equate with Juul’s popularity and successful sales, Mr. Huang said. Also, hundreds of millions of dollars in profits can’t be attributed to increase use among current users alone, there has to be new customers.

More likely, federal researchers and kids don’t understand e-cigarettes and Juul to be the same thing, he said.

“When you ask teens whether they use e-cigarettes, which is a question used in national surveys to capture e-cigarette use, a lot of them don’t really think they’re using e-cigarettes because for them, Juul is a technology product, it’s not a tobacco product,” said Mr. Huang.

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