Tobacco Controllers Pump Juul. Are They Acting Out A Fairytale?

Carl V. Phillips | Contributor

Most readers will be aware that the Juul brand of cartridge-based vapor products has been the target of an orchestrated media and political attack campaign. The main result has been millions of dollars in free advertising for the brand, to the point that many who are vaguely aware of vaping think it is known as “Juuling.” This publicity has come bundled with attacks on the products and the company, of course, but it is difficult to imagine that the net effect is not significant enrichment for Juul. The attacks will burn out, but the name recognition will not.

This was clearly not a spontaneous outpouring of interest in the brand by local news stations and politicians. It was organized and orchestrated, probably by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (whose attempts to deny it read like a Trumpesque de facto concession of guilt) but perhaps someone else. Thus it is not unreasonable to analyze the campaign as if it were the action of a unitary actor rather than an emergent result from uncoordinated actions. So the question is, why is tobacco control pumping Juul?

We can first imagine the “three-dimensional chess” version of the answer, in which those orchestrating the campaign thought through its implications and made a rational strategic decision. Tobacco control likes to (falsely) portray themselves as being at war with an organized monolith called “the tobacco industry.” Vaping is rather inconvenient for that narrative, since “the industry” is mostly a collection of small businesses, many started or operated by former smokers who wanted to give others the opportunity of vaping. In other words, they make lousy supervillains. So the campaign was orchestrated to portray vaping as really being about one supervillain.

Why Juul? Tobacco controllers’ usual punching bags also have substantial closed-system product lines (Mark Ten, Vuse, Blu), so why not them? The main problem is that those companies know how to take a punch, as do other veterans of the Tobacco Wars like Njoy. The leadership of Juul do not have the experience to deal with these attacks and, in this three-dimensional chess story, the tobacco controllers could anticipate their reactions. Indeed, in this version of the story the tobacco controllers were waiting for some non-veteran manufacturer to surge in popularity, as Juul has, in order to launch its media blitz. Juul followed the predicted script, that of an innocent party who does not know it is being set up, earnestly informing the attackers and the media of their innocence (of marketing and selling to minors) and apparently expecting that to be sufficient. As planned by the chess players, this accomplished little and instead had a “don’t think of an elephant” effect by reiterating the concrete accusations.

As an added bonus, Juul hardware is sleek and clever, and the nicotine density is fairly high (i.e., ideal for smoking cessation), making it easy to trick local news reporters and politicians into believing there is something fundamentally new about these products. (“Vaping has been around for a while — why should we worry about it now?”) However, the attackers planned to use that same messaging about a “brand new threat!” whatever product they had attacked, so Juul’s characteristics merely made this easier.

Yes, the chess players gave a huge boost to one company. But that is a feature of the strategy, not a bug. They wanted to vilify Juul and still ensure Juul’s market share stayed high so that they have the supervillain their narrative requires. With this — and by intentionally misrepresenting Juul’s share of the closed-system market as their share of the entire market — tobacco control destroys the (accurate) image of vaping as a consumer-driven atomized market and creates a reason why everyone should back their underdog war against rampaging giants (never mind that the giant in question is just politely protesting its innocence). This sets up the ultimate prize, pushing the FDA to accelerate their banning of most vapor products.

At the opposite extreme from this three-dimensional chess scenario is that the attackers goofed up badly because they lashed out without looking even one move ahead. They were genuinely enraged about Juul because the brand had become a fad among a few subpopulations of American teenagers. They were so oblivious about how markets and marketing works that they did not realize that their brand-naming blitz would enrich the target of their rage. Since they did not even realize that, they certainly did not understand they are making sure Juul is one of the few products that can justify the expense of FDA applications to stay on the market (perhaps after being acquired by someone who is savvy about navigating that process).

What seems a more compelling explanation than either of these, though it has some elements of each, is that the attackers fell victim to their own propaganda and delusions. Key elements of tobacco control’s myths about itself are that of a modern-style fairytale (of the non-preschool variety; think Star Wars or Lord of the Rings). They are the protagonist faction, which is always beleaguered despite typically consisting of royalty and oligarchs. Everyone on the other side is motivated by some never-explicated desire to do evil for no particular reason, not by any legitimate interests or even sensible selfish desires. The lack of coherent goals should create anarchy, but the evil faction in these tales is somehow always organized and focused.

With that, we get “the tobacco industry,” a single actor, and genuine obliviousness to the very concept of pumping one company at the expense of others. In this mythos it is impossible to conceive of anything being consumer-driven, so denying this is more delusion than chess tactic. As for trying to create a Big Bad as the focal point for the fight, that is also delusion rather than strategy. The fairytale mindset says there is always a Big Bad, so in their minds they are not concocting it, they are merely identifying who it is.

The inexplicably organized evil faction in the fairytales does not act based on any apparent interests, so what are its goals? Lacking any other basis for them, the tales offer the implicit goals of “get more, more, more! (of something)” and “diametrically oppose whatever the protagonists want.” Tobacco controllers want fewer tobacco products to be sold. Their delusion says that their enemies’ main goal must be to increase total volume. So there is no concern about boosting Juul’s market share because there is simply no recognition that this matters far more to their Big Bad than does total sector volume.

The targeting of Juul rather than a major tobacco company may not be fully explained by the delusion. This might actually be tactical, intentionally picking a vapor-only company to combat the “but vapor is mostly not the cigarette companies!” messages that many tepid defenders of consumers’ rights focus on. The metaphor could be expanded to cover it (in longform fairytales, the evil faction usually has multiple semi-independent units to create more story arcs), but this seems unlikely to be a motive. As for the timing — creating a sudden hysteria in the absence of any sudden changes — this might just be a simple matter of ignorance. Tobacco controllers only just started thinking about this because they live in a bubble.

One last possibility is that most tobacco controllers are playing Star Wars, but a few non-deluded leaders are playing four-dimensional chess, using this campaign to help keep their useful idiots believing a childish mythology. But that is a story for another day.

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