Hey Juul, you made it bad

Many might choose Facebook as the most questionable tech company of 2018. The allegedly sexy vaping company that's taken tobacco money is my winner.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
Smokescreen? (Screenshot by ZDNet)

You see them around a lot, hanging outside restaurants.

One hand clasped discreetly over their large, sexy USB stick, the other in their pocket.

Every once in a while, they'll lift the stick to their lips and take a deep, apparently satisfying drag.

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Often, they seem quite young, the Juulers. It's cool to participate in a verb, after all. Juuling is cooling. And, some suspect, it might also occasionally be killing.

Vaping involves the sucking in of nicotine, after all. That nicotine can (and has) come in many enticing flavors.

Many might think of Facebook as their prime tech derision object of the year. Somehow, and I congratulate it, Juul has drifted toward the even more objectionable.

Perhaps I was unduly influenced by a dinner with a Juul employee.

I asked him whether he worried that his company's product might help end some people's lives.

"Yeah, but not jumbo jets full of people a day like smoking," he replied.

Hey, tech companies are all data-driven. 

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Where the people who started Facebook were little boys desperate to be big at all costs -- and didn't stop to think their product wasn't too secure -- the people behind Juul surely knew they were dealing with something physically addictive.

These days, they run ads warning potential customers that Juul isn't for kids, that it's a means of weaning yourself off cigarettes.

At the beginning, though, they created a product that looked remarkably cool and enjoyed highly alluring flavors.

Hey (kids)! Sweet nicotine! You'll love it! Mango! Cucumber! Crème Brûlée!

It's almost as if Juul's progress from cleverness to regulation has been like Facebook on speed.

While it took many years for Facebook to be fully confronted with its seamier side, the questioning of Juul has come more quickly.

Once it became clear that many teens were (surprisingly!) mesmerized by this iPod-ization of smoking, the headlines took on a somber tone.

September 2018: "Juul is giving users tools to help them quit its e-cigs."

October 2018: "Juul hit with surprise FDA inspection over marketing practices."

November 2018: "Juul is shutting down on social media, halting retail orders for flavored pods."

Go to Juul's website today and the headline reads: "We are committed to innovating with adult smokers in mind."

But if kids see it and find it cool, well, it's not our fault, is it?

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Who might imagine that this is all at least partly a response to a New York Times article from August 2018, in which a former manager suggested that PAX Labs -- the company from which Juul spun away in 2017 -- knew that teens were Juuling in drooling numbers.

The data is, indeed, edifying.

According to the University of Michigan's National Adolescent Drug Trends data -- well, let's go to the first sentence of the report: "Increases in adolescent vaping from 2017 to 2018 were the largest ever recorded in the past 43 years for any adolescent substance use outcome in the US."

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The second sentence is quite bracing too: "The percentage of 12th grade students who reported vaping nicotine in the past 30 days nearly doubled, rising from 11 percent to 21 percent."

What about 9th to 12th graders, I hear you ask. Well, vaping has encouraged 1.3 million more of them to join the fold over the past year.

How odd that they'd latch onto Juul when it was never, ever marketed to teens.

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Still, what if all these smoke clouds of suspicion are misplaced? What if Juul truly was founded by those with an altruistic desperation to help smokers, just as Facebook was founded by someone desperate to see the world open and connected?

Surely, then, its leaders would only seek investment from those with a certain ethical purity, untainted by a twisted past or a questionable present.

Instead, Juul sold 35 percent of itself to Altria. That would be the Altria formerly known as Philip Morris and currently still selling Marlboro, Virginia Slims and a whole host of cigarette brands.

Naturally, Juul issued a long, tortured statement on its enrichment.

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It confessed that the Altria investment was "counterintuitive." It claimed to understand the skepticism surrounding a deal that would "provide funds that would benefit our employees and our investors."

But please don't worry. It's all altruistic. Or should that now be Altria-istic?

Yes, the employees are apparently getting an average of $1.3 million each, but please don't decry that. It's nothing compared to what they could still make.

Juul explained that it set specific, strict criteria for potential investors. Somehow, a cigarette company turned out to be the most appropriate.

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What could Altria have had that no other company did? More money, perhaps?

One of the things Juul now looks forward to is this: "Altria will enable Juul to reach adult smokers with direct communications through cigarette pack inserts and mailings to adult smokers via Altria companies' databases."

Ah, so the idea is to move cigarette smokers over to Juul, so that Philip Morris's parent company can still benefit?

What, though, do health organizations think? Is Juuling safer? The American Heart Association thinks more research is needed.

It adds: "Tobacco companies want to hook a new generation on nicotine and the allure of smoking." I wonder how they might do that.

Could it be that Juuling is fooling?

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