While the testimony of a certain famous lawman grabbed headlines on Wednesday, another Congressional hearing is taking place this week with a decidedly lower profile. This hearing is a showdown between anti-vapers and Juul executives as they testify before the House Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy.
This latest spectacle is a two-day hearing to look into Juul’s marketing, health claims, and its recently developing coziness with Big Tobacco. Towards the end of last year, tobacco juggernaut Altria invested almost $13 million in Juul Labs. Given Big Tobacco’s shady (to say the least) history of marketing, some of these concerns seem to be well-substantiated.
On the other hand, this hearing has the potential to strengthen and embolden the crackdown on vaping of all kinds – not just Juul’s products – and therein lies the real danger. Over the course of the past year, Juul has become almost synonymous with vaping in general. They head the Coalition for Reasonable Vaping Regulation and have taken up the mantle for vaping, filling the leadership void that has existed since vaping’s inception.
The hearing will be led by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D – IL), who is the chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy. In June, he announced that his committee was investigating Juul, prompting them to turn over thousands of pages of documents containing information related to their social media, advertising, and health claims practices.
Dishearteningly, Krishnamoorthi is taking an all-too-familiar tack with the proceedings, citing “the safety and well-being of America’s youth” as his driving motivation for taking an axe to Juul. He goes on to make one of the most bizarre and unsubstantiated claims regarding vaping to date, stating that “Juul’s high nicotine content is fueling addiction” and that “frequent Juul use is sending kids across the country to rehab”. Naturally, Krishnamoorthi doesn’t cite sources or mention where he pulled this data. This can be forgiven, one might suppose, since revealing the source of his data would likely violate norms of public decency, as the only place he could have possibly pulled this information is from his own ass.
In any case, the first day of the hearing was Wednesday, and the committee took turns listening to the American Academy of Pediatrics and Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes, the latter group not to be confused with Parents Against Vaping Chalkdust or Parents Against Vaping Exhaust Fumes.
Dr. Robert Jackler
The early proceedings also included testimony from Dr. Robert Jackler, who recently concluded a study with Stanford showing that usage of the hashtag “#Juul” has exploded since Juul Labs shut down its official account in November. Time spent hearing from Jackler seemed to take up an inordinate amount of time, with discussion surrounding this uptick in Juul-related hashtags on Instagram.
While Juul has shut down its official page and social media marketing efforts, submitted takedown requests to Instagram for unauthorized use of its hashtag, and worked with Instagram to implement better prohibition of the term, this is apparently still a matter that requires Congressional discussion. In fact, Jackler insists that somehow Juul is obligated to do even more than they’ve already done. As an example, Jackler cites Instagram’s ban on hashtags involving sex, slurs, and drugs like Xanax.
If you thought Krishnamoorthi’s call to action was bizarre, buckle up because Jackler goes hard for his crown with this one. The idea that banning terms like Xanax and, presumably, the N-word is on par with banning the brand name of an e-cigarette is certifiably unhinged. It’s not unfair to point out that #Marlboro or #weed didn’t come up during this discussion at all. Would not have seemed out of place to mention Marlboro’s 126K posts or #weed’s 19.5M posts when they railed on about #Juul coming up 543K times. Why not go on to bring up the fact that #meth has 372K posts?
The point is that it’s absurd to demand stricter standards of Instagram and Juul than you would impose upon literally anything else. Juul has shut down their social media marketing and gone after people for using their hashtag without their authorization. The second half of that is clearly above and beyond, by any rational standard. But, of course, the goal is far more insidious than reigning in an out-of-control Big Tobacco company and “protecting the youth”.
Jackler’s time didn’t end there, either. He went on to display Juul’s colorful ads full of attractive young people (you know, like every single ad for any product ever).
Children of Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes
As part of PAVE’s testimony, a pair of teenagers also testified to share their experience with Juul. They explained that Juul had given an anti-vaping presentation at their school, saying to them very clearly, “we don’t want you as customers.” One might think this would be a good point in Juul’s favor, but apparently it wasn’t enough for Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif. She remarked that it was “disturbing” to her that Juul was pushing an anti-vaping curriculum in high schools. Presumably, her point was that it seemed as though Juul was attempting to push kids into using cigarettes, which is bizarre on its face but also begs a more important question: What exactly do these people want from Juul, in particular, and vaping in general? The answer seems increasingly clear to be that they want vaping to simply vanish entirely. A grim agenda.
The teens went on to mention that, during their presentation, Juul representatives had told the class that “Juuls are totally safe”, and this became the headline of their testimony. Whether or not the testimony of these teens was accurate, and laying aside whether or not the Juul is safe for a moment, it’s incredible that a single line from an anti-vaping demonstration became the entire takeaway from Juul’s efforts.
In fact, it was after this very demonstration that two mothers decided to create the cringe-inducing “Parents Against Vaping E-cigarettes”. The moms testified too and you’re going to want some popcorn for this ride.
The Actual Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes
Meredith Berkman and Dorian Fuhrman (no relation to that racist cop, probably) are the founders of PAVE. Fuhrman claimed that her son “changed kind of overnight” after he started vaping. “He started spending a lot of time in his room in the dark. He became moody. We had a very contentious relationship.” Yeah, mom, probably because you’re the kind of mother who creates a whole-ass organization just because your kid wants to vape a f**king Juul. I’d be moody and lock myself away too.
Berkman’s spent her testimony a little differently. She didn’t make claims her vaping son sound like a heroin addict, for one thing, but she definitely wasn’t a whole lot more coherent or reasonable than Fuhrman (no relation). Instead, her testimony was just another call to panic, the likes of which we’ve all been dealing for years. “We face an entire generation of kids addicted to nicotine, who are human guinea pigs for the Juul experiment overall.”
There’s a whole lot to unpack there, but let’s start with the terror behind her first sentence. “An entire generation of kids addicted to nicotine”. Her presumption there is that this hasn’t been the case for hundreds of years in a country founded on growing tobacco with slave labor, that somehow now, the nicotine that her children are addicted to is turning them into antisocial, moody, dark-dwelling junkies that will never amount to anything. Furthermore, “the Juul experiment”? What does that even mean? One would assume she’s referring to the whole idea that “there’s just no science on whether these things are good for you or not”. Just another helicopter parent spouting disproven rhetoric and nonsense. Next.
On Thursday, Juul co-founder James Monsees testified, along with CAO Ashley Gould. Opposite them was Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Myers, in particular, hates Ju ul.
Monsees testified that the company “never wanted” underage vapers to pick up their product, but did admit that the company had made “missteps” throughout the course of their history. His main point throughout the course of his testimony was that clearly teenagers were using their product and, yes, they may have, at certain points, had something to do with that. He was quick to point out that they have since taken steps to remedy their past errors and that they are well beyond any such low tactics at present.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was the Democrats who seemed the most unrestrained in their disdain for Juul Labs and the two representatives who sat before them. Republicans on the other hand seemed almost sympathetic with the executives, which is perhaps equally unsurprising given their track record of coziness with Big Tobacco in general.
Marketers of Poison
In going for the jugular, Democrats pointed out Juul’s well-established history of using fruity flavors and “youthful advertising” – a purposely broad phrase without any meaningfully defined parameters. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., went so far as to call the pair of executives “nothing but [marketers] of poison, and your target is young people”.
While it’s almost entertaining to hear Juul executives, who’ve likely never experienced this type of pushback, get called all kinds of names, it’s important to understand that DeSaulnier (and those in his camp) do not simply reserve their ire for Monsees and Gould. Instead, this is the opinion they hold of every single vape shop and manufacturer in America. In that context, it’s deeply unsettling to see this level of vitriol for an industry which could potentially yield life-saving advances in nicotine technology.
Monsees also took great pains to put distance between Juul Labs and Big Tobacco, claiming “Juul Labs isn’t Big Tobacco. We are here to eliminate its product, the cigarette.” While this is true on some levels, it was difficult for him to evade direct questioning on their recent 35% buy-in from Altria, owner of Marlboro.
Juul = Big Tobacco?
Around this point, Krishnamoorthi stepped in, claiming that Juul pods purposely copied the look and style of the Marlboro cigarette, even pulling up a handy little PowerPoint presentation to drive the point home. Monsees rightly dismissed this point with a few casual remarks, explaining that “the last thing we wanted was to be confused with any major tobacco company”.
After they attacked Juul’s connection with Big Tobacco, the typically well-poised and hip young Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., chimed in accusing Juul of evading federal regulations against vaping companies issues smoking cessation claims with their “Make the Switch” campaign. While she likely has a point here, the point is largely moot given that America’s laws against smoking cessation claims are entirely at odds with dozens of studies which clearly point out vaping’s efficacy as a smoking cessation aid. Whether Juul broke the law with this ad campaign seems woefully beside the point.
And that really sums up the entire charade: this is all woefully beside the point. From the parents who think vaping makes kids “act out” to politicians concerned with whether or not a company broke some meaningless law to professors who see malice in completely standard advertisement, everyone is missing the point.
Furthermore, there’s nobody to really root for in this fight. Sure, it’d be nice to see Juul Labs make a decisive point regarding the health benefits and general safety of vaping as a whole, but we know that will never happen. Juul only wants to make sure that they can continue doing what they do. It’s why they accepted a bundle of money from Altria and it’s why they showed up here in the first place. While we, as vapers, may see them as being on our side to a certain extent, they will not hesitate to sell every single one of us down the river if it meant protecting their bottom line.
And then on the other side, you have the aforementioned collection of maniacs champing at the bit about “the youth vaping epidemic”. In this shuffle, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s really happening. People are dying every day because of cigarettes. Vaping is a proven and effective alternative to smoking cigarettes for adults. There’s no confusion about that. Every scientific study bears it out. Yet, in this country, we’re reduced to watching a slap fight between Big Tobacco moneymen and politicians looking to make a name for themselves as defenders of the innocent. In the middle, nobody at all is watching out for the people who are really affected. And that’s the gist of it, folks. The future of vaping will be decided in rooms like these by people like these, and in the end, we get to suffer.
Unless, that is, we can find another way to make our voices heard. They’ve got Parents Against Vaping E-cigarettes, where is the Ex-Smokers for Vaping? They’ve got these weirdo professor-types, let’s get some of our own. If we don’t organize, stand up, and share the truth of what’s happening on the ground, in the real world, we’re going to be drowned out by people who don’t for a second have our best interests in mind. Speak up, people – the threat to vaping is real.