The e-cigarette company JUUL recently agreed to pay the state of North Carolina $40 million in order to settle a lawsuit that claimed they marketed their products to teenagers.
JUUL has faced increasing criticism and multiple attempts at regulation in recent years over its release of fruit-flavored pods that found popularity with teens. The company has also faced scrutiny for its use of young influencers who market its products to teens, as well as advertisements on homework solutions websites.
As a condition of the settlement, JUUL agreed to abandon any marketing content that appeals to young people (which seems a bit ambiguous), and to only sell its products behind-the-counter in the state.
The Rollercoaster of Success and Regulations
JUUL has experienced a rollercoaster of existence since launching in 2015. Its e-cigarettes skyrocketed in use right out of the gate, with many Americans making the switch from traditional cigarettes to vaping.
Their products dominated such a large percentage of the market that the term “Juuling” became synonymous with vaping itself. (You know you’ve made it when the name of your company becomes a verb.) At one point the company was valued at $38 billion, prompting Altria (the parent company of Marlboro) to acquire a 35 percent stake in it in 2018.
But JUUL’s massive success has also made it a target, and their earnings have taken a hit because of it.
It is true that young people love JUUL. E-cigarette use among youth increased 70 percent since its launch and a February 2020 study revealed that 21 percent of US students used e-cigarettes in the last month, while only 8 percent of students said they smoked cigarettes.
In response, the FDA has labeled vaping an “epidemic” and is considering a ban on its products altogether. But this panic is misguided and manipulative.
Vaping is no worse for an individual than many other vices on the market. And according to John Hopkins University, it’s a safer practice than smoking cigarettes which have far more toxins. And while vaping is certainly addictive and may have harmful effects, so do a myriad of other everyday activities that no one raises an eyebrow over, like drinking, prescription medications, or even cleaning solutions. In all of these circumstances, society chooses to educate individuals about the risk and let them make their own cost-benefit analysis on their use.
Yet when it comes to vaping, a tremendous amount of time, energy, ink, and taxpayer dollars are being spent on the issue as various actors seek to regulate or outright prohibit its use. It doesn’t take a historian to understand why these actions are problematic.
The Baptists and Bootleggers Get the Band Back Together
All of this attention on JUUL and other start-up vaping companies has attracted the "Bootleggers and the Baptists" to the scene, both of which are eager to exercise control over the latest moral panic “threatening our youth.”
Their song and dance is an old one we’ve seen throughout our history. These two groups often team up to have various products they deem morally harmful banned or regulated. Let me explain what we mean by these terms.
The “Baptists” are the people in society who are motivated by moral panic and their belief that it is appropriate to use the government to force others to act according to their standard of conduct. More often than not, they use rhetoric like “think of the children,” in their appeals for government action—a technique which is used to manipulate the public.
In the case of JUUL, the “Baptists” would be the parents who want the government to take over their responsibility of raising their children, the doctors who believe government action can prevent harmful side effects of a product, and the teachers or other community leaders appealing for government action on the issue. (As the daughter of a Baptist minister, I don’t take this term personally. It is simply a catch-all phrase used to describe people who want to force their values—religious or otherwise—on others.)
The “bootleggers” in this scenario refers to those acting in the market and in government whose monetary interests are threatened by the company causing moral panic— in this case the traditional cigarette companies and the politicians whose campaigns they often fund. These people partner with the Baptists, knowing that their emotional appeals to morality will help cover up the real reason they are actually seeking regulation (to eliminate competition or further their financial interests).
It’s important to note Big Tobacco spends millions on lobbying, and often even lobbies for regulations that it can sustain but that will eliminate their small competitors. (Notably, Altria is one of those big companies.) In a 2019 Politico article, Sarah Owermohle explained how this dance was playing out, threatening to reduce the e-cigarette industry “to just a few big players.”
“Tobacco giants like Imperial Brands, Altria and R.J. Reynolds have added lobbying muscle and amplified the message that they welcome regulation of their e-cigarette brands and are ready and willing to prove their products’ worth,” wrote Owermohle. “Meanwhile, smaller e-cig makers and retailers are allying with free-market ideologues, suing governments and appealing directly to the public.”
Just sitting here wondering when all the "eat the rich" kids will wake up and realize that regulations are always how the connected few rig the system for themselves.— Hannah Cox (@HannahDCox) July 7, 2021
...Any minute now. Right? RIGHT? pic.twitter.com/H82bTzvDZU
Notably, campaign finance reports show these lobbying dollars get spread pretty evenly across both major parties and their representatives. The Baptists and Bootleggers play the bipartisan game, which we all know is usually code for the two sides teaming up to trample on your rights.
When Bootleggers and Baptists team up they tend to form a powerful alliance that allows them to push through anti-free market, and anti-constitutional regulations that ultimately hurt society. And it seems they have their coalition in place on this issue.
Banning products merely creates a black market and furthers mass incarceration. JUUL might have paid a steep price in this lawsuit, but society will pay a steeper one if we continue to fall for the Bootleggers and Baptists’ side show.