Out of a firestorm of controversy over teen nicotine use, Juul Labs emerged in January with a newly sober and adult marketing identity. Forget the fruit-flavored vaping pods, the colorful ads populated with young models, the viral Instagram and Facebook posts. What the Silicon Valley e-cigarette giant is really about, its $10 million television ad campaign declares, is helping cigarette smokers shake their cigarette addictions and get healthy.
The ads feature mature subjects with their ages clearly stated on screen: “Carolyn, 54,” “Patrick, 47,” “Mimi, 37.” They sit against muted domestic backdrops and say that because of Juul, they’ll never touch a cigarette again after decades of dependency. Juuling, they emphasize, is an “alternative” to smoking. Juul’s website underlines that message: “Our mission,” one page reads in bold white text, is to “improve the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers by eliminating cigarettes.”
In its effort to define its products as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes, Juul appears to be following a familiar marketing cycle. Throughout the 20th century, as warnings about the health risks of cigarettes arose, tobacco companies repeatedly found new ways to downplay concerns and advertise their products as healthy options. When their claims were refuted by evidence, they traded them out for new claims.
E-cigarettes like Juul’s are still a recent invention, and their long-term health effects remain largely unknown. Some evidence shows that vaping can help smokers quit, as Juul’s ads profess, and that it is a safer substitute for people who already smoke. But studies are finding that, like the many tobacco and nicotine products that preceded them, Juuls also come with considerable risks. History seems to be repeating itself.
Tobacco and nicotine use have long been associated with health risks. Certain effects of smoking, such as throat irritation and coughing, have been obvious for centuries. Others, such as the increased risk of cancers and vascular diseases, began to be reported in the 1890s. Despite that evidence, tobacco companies marketed cigarettes as health products throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A number of brands promoted their products as curatives for respiratory conditions such as asthma and hay fever. Camel sold its cigarettes as digestive aids.
As concerns about smoking gradually mounted, tobacco companies didn’t stop claiming their products had health benefits. Instead, many adapted, presenting their cigarettes in print and television ads as healthier than competing brands, if not healthy outright. Athletes, from swimmers to cyclists to track stars, often cropped up in marketing campaigns. Camel, for instance, declared that its cigarettes were a “mild” choice preferred by professional athletes and doctors. “The athletes—to whom ‘wind,’ healthy nerves, ‘condition,’ are vitally important—these men and women insist on mildness,” claimed one ad featuring the Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig.
Doctors were also frequently cited, if not always shown. “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette,” one Camel ad campaign proclaimed. Camel’s competitors boasted that “throat doctors vote Old Gold best for your throat” and printed ads “based on the opinion of [thousands of] physicians” that reassured prospective buyers they would suffer “no throat irritation” and “no cough” if they smoked Lucky Strikes.
In the 1920s, the Axton-Fisher Tobacco Company introduced cigarettes flavored with menthol, a mint extract that can temporarily relieve the throat irritation caused by smoking. The company used that effect to promote menthol cigarettes as a source of relief for smokers suffering from a cold, a sore or dry throat, or a cough. They were a “superior” alternative to normal cigarettes, one 1940 ad argued, in part because of their “greater safety.” The company’s menthol cigarettes, called Spuds, became the fifth-best-selling cigarette brand in the country seven years after they hit the market.
Meanwhile, the evidence against tobacco companies’ promotions of healthier cigarettes only continued to grow. In 1953, a team of New York researchers demonstrated a direct causal relationship between cigarette tar and lung cancer for the first time using lab rats. Then, in a landmark 1964 report, the surgeon general’s office concluded that smoking was correlated with emphysema and heart disease and caused chronic bronchitis and an increased risk of cancer. The media publicized the danger to potential and current smokers around the world. An estimated 30 million people quit over the next decade in response.
The surgeon general’s report marked an inflection point, the beginning of a concentrated effort to regulate cigarette advertising and legally bar smoking from public spaces in America. For tobacco companies, this meant the start of a long, bitter fight to keep people smoking. Advertisers leaned into the strategy they’d already been employing for decades: convincing the public to trust that their products were special, safe.
Companies promised to reduce smokers’ exposure to dangerous tars and nicotine with the help of filters. Philip Morris inserts from the 1950s promoted “the cigarette that takes the FEAR out of smoking,” while a Kent cigarette ad from 1964 claimed that “no medical evidence or scientific endorsement has proven any other cigarette to be superior.” Bolstered by these claims of protection, filtered cigarettes quickly took over the market amid the influx of new health studies in the 1950s. They remain dominant to this day.
Another marketing strategy was born in 1966, when the Federal Trade Commission began testing nicotine and tar levels in various cigarette brands. Tobacco companies began producing “light,” “low tar,” and “less nicotine” cigarettes that were designed to produce reduced readings of tar and nicotine content, and used the government’s own measurements as implicit evidence that their cigarettes were safer to smoke. The Public Health Service lent credence to those claims by running public-service advertisements encouraging smokers to switch to cigarettes that produced less tar and nicotine.
But for the second time in the ongoing back-and-forth of health warnings and marketing reassurances, a wave of research discredited tobacco companies’ claims. Evidence disputes the idea that filtering or flavoring cigarettes can reduce health risks. Studies have shown that “mild” cigarettes flavored with menthol are in fact not healthier than those without it, though they are more addictive. Researchers have also demonstrated that filtered and “light” cigarettes are not, in fact, healthier or safer to smoke than unfiltered ones, and may actually be worse for smokers.
Internal memos have shown that the health risks of filtered cigarettes were understood by tobacco companies, even as they created new products and printed ads to promote their improved safety. Since the 1950s, private and public lawsuits have argued that the tobacco industry undertook a decades-long effort to suppress information about smoking’s negative health effects. In a landmark 2006 decision, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia held that their efforts equated to illegally defrauding the American public.
In 2017, after a series of failed appeals, the companies found liable in that case began paying for a new series of court-ordered “corrective statements” to run on television and in newspapers to counter decades of false advertising. Instead of images of doctors, athletes, and smiling young smokers, these ads feature simple white backgrounds overlaid with black text; instead of promises that this cigarette is better, cleaner, healthier, they recite a series of facts about the health effects of smoking. “Smoking kills, on average, 1,200 Americans. Every day,” one statement reads. “All cigarettes cause cancer, lung disease, heart attacks, and premature death—lights, low tar, ultra lights, and naturals. There is no safe cigarette,” reads another.
Now, just as tobacco companies have been forced out of the cycle of concern and reassurance that they’ve maintained for decades, Juul looks as if it’s jumping in. Unlike mentholated, filtered, or “light” cigarettes, studies have found that e-cigarettes are at least somewhat healthier to smoke than the traditional model. But as e-cigarettes have gained popularity and researchers have begun studying their long-term effects, they’ve found evidence linking vaping to potential dangers to the heart, respiratory system, and brain—and suggesting that, regardless of Juul’s claimed mission to help adult smokers quit, e-cigarette use can lead younger people to take up smoking.
Juul’s serious new television ads don’t address any of that. Instead, the company’s marketing strategy relies on a now familiar sleight of hand, ignoring this mounting evidence of health complications and pivoting to a narrative of relative safety. The ads bank on Big Tobacco’s villainous reputation, earned through decades of scheming and misrepresentation, to make Juul seem noble in contrast: like an e-cigarette hero, swooping in to save the day.
In an emailed statement, a Juul spokesperson told me that the company’s marketing reflects its mission to help smokers make the switch from traditional cigarettes. “We do not want non-nicotine users to buy JUUL products and that is why our marketing is aimed at adult smokers age 35 and up,” the statement said, adding the disclaimer: “JUUL products are not intended to be used as cessation products, including for the cure or treatment of nicotine addiction, relapse prevention, or relief of nicotine withdrawal symptoms.”
These legal actions recall the anti-smoking fight waged in past decades, too. If Juul wants insight into that history, it won’t have to look far: It can turn to the Marlboro maker Altria, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world and, as of last December, a major investor and 35 percent stakeholder in Juul Labs.