Looking at nearly 15,000 posts from March through May of 2018, the study found that more than a third of posts were promotional in nature — containing branded marketing messages or links to websites where users could purchase vapes. More than half of the posts also featured content related to “youth culture and lifestyle.”
That’s important, the researchers say, because “the tobacco industry has historically used lifestyle and social acceptability appeals to market tobacco products, particularly to youth.”
Many of these posts were generated not by Juul, but by social media users and other vape companies seeking to draw in business.
In a statement Tuesday, Juul spokesman Ted Kwong said, “At the time of this study, third-party users generated well over 99.999 percent of the Instagram content related to JUUL products.” He cautioned against conflating the company’s own posts during that period with “wholly unaffiliated third-party content, including content from entities we are actively suing for their inappropriate and unauthorized activities.”
The study, published in the BMJ journal Tobacco Control, was funded by the Truth Initiative, an anti-tobacco advocacy group. David Dobbins, the group’s chief operating officer, said the US Food and Drug Administration should “use its power to restrict e-cigarette manufacturers from using social media to market to young people.” He also called on social media platforms to “adopt and enforce policies against the promotion of any tobacco products to young adults.”
“We agree these types of posts are a serious problem and that is why we employ a social media monitoring team dedicated to submitting takedown requests of exactly the type of inappropriate third-party social media content the authors cite as problematic,” said Kwong, adding that this team has resulted in the removal of “31,889 social media listings, including 25,405 individual Instagram posts, and an additional 1,251 Instagram accounts.”
‘Hashtag-Juul lives on’
Jackler said he doesn’t necessarily believe Juul intentionally targeted underage kids with its marketing, but its appeal to kids was obvious early on, and the company didn’t take early steps to prevent that.
“The company claims that they didn’t know” that the product appealed to underage kids who began using it in large numbers, Jackler said.
“I don’t believe that, not for a minute, because they’re also a very digital, very analytical company,” he added. “They know their market. They know what they’re doing.”
Ashley Gould, chief administrative officer at Juul Labs, told CNN last year that “we were completely surprised by the youth usage of the product.”
Previous research has documented an earlier spread of vaping and Juul-related content on social media.
“Once you get kids doing it, you don’t have to pay for it,” he said. “It takes off on its own, and you continue to get the financial benefit.”
Jackler agreed, saying that the company fostered a social media phenomenon in its early days that took on a life of its own, and continues to introduce young people to its product.
“Hashtag-Juul lives on,” he said.
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Officials have put social media front and center in going after e-cigarette companies.
Kwong also said that “JUUL Labs did not sponsor any ‘influencer’ activities on any social media platform, including Instagram,” during the period referenced in the new study. “As a result, this study does not measure the company’s social media presence as alleged, but instead provides a snapshot of the social media content perpetuated by others, including manufacturers of illegal and potentially dangerous compatible products which aggressively promote their products on social media to youth.”
CNN’s Roni Selig contributed to this report.