During a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on Wednesday, two teens spoke about their experience with JUUL, the company that produces flavored e-cigarettes. The committee is investigating JUUL’s role in the youth vaping epidemic, and the teens who testified said that JUUL did advertise directly to teens — right in their own school.
Caleb Mintz, now 17, said he and his friend, Phillip Fuhrman, who also testified, were in the 9th grade when JUUL came to their school to give students a presentation. Mintz said his school holds a mental health and addiction seminar three times a year, during which the teachers leave the room so the students have a safe space to talk.
During this particular seminar, the students were alone in a classroom with a JUUL representative. Mintz testified that the representative said, repeatedly, JUUL is “totally safe.”
“For my classmates who were already vaping, it was a sign of relief because now they were able to vape without any concern,” Mintz said. “I believe that after this meeting, kids were more inclined to vape because now they thought it was just a flavor device that didn’t have any harmful substances in it.”
Mintz said he and Fuhrman approached the JUUL representative after the presentation. “I believe the presenter was sending mixed messages by saying JUUL is totally safe and following up every ‘totally safe’ message with: ‘But we don’t want you as customers.'”
“I believe the presenter was playing on the rebellious side of teens, when they’re told not to do something, they do it,” Mintz said.
Sixteen-year-old Fuhrman, who said he was addicted to nicotine at the time of the JUUL presentation, testified that Mintz asked the presenter what to do if your friend is addicted to nicotine.
“The speaker thought that he was talking about cigarettes, and he said he should mention JUUL to his friend because that’s a safer alternative than smoking cigarettes and it would be better for the kid to use,” Fuhrman said.
After learning that JUUL gave a presentation at their children’s’ school, the teens’ mothers, Meredith Berkman and Dorian Fuhrman, created Parents Against Vaping E-cigarettes. Both mothers testified on Wednesday as well.
Fuhrman testified that her son “changed kind of overnight” when he started using JUUL. “He started spending a lot of time in his room in the dark. He became moody. We had a very contentious relationship,” she said about Phillip.
Berkman said the JUUL representative was not hired by the school. A third-party organization booked the seminar and naively, but “in good faith,” enlisted a JUUL employee. A staffer from the outside organization contacted JUUL’s youth prevention coordinator, who recommended the JUUL representative for the presentation.
“The school had no idea that the outside group had brought a JUUL representative into the school,” Berkman said.
Berkman said if we don’t take action on the youth nicotine epidemic, “we face an entire generation of kids addicted to nicotine, who are human guinea pigs for the JUUL experiment overall.”
“We can tell you from personal experience that kids were seduced by JUUL’s enormous social media presence on Snapchat and Instagram and by the use of influencers who were paid to promote and give away the product,” she told Congress.
Public health analyst and researcher Rae O’Leary also testified that JUUL targeted Native American tribes to use as “guinea pigs.”
O’Leary is a nurse and respiratory therapist at Missouri Breaks, a private, Native-owned research firm located on the Cheyenne River Reservation in rural Eagle Butte, South Dakota. She said a JUUL representative visited the tribal council.
According to O’Learly, JUUL solicited tribal medical professionals to provide devices to tribal members for free and collect information on the tribal members in exchange for a $600,000 investment.
“I would be remised not to highlight how similar many of JUUL’s tactics seem to be right out of the Big Tobacco playbook,” Rep. Ayana Pressley, D-Massachusetts, said. “For decades Big Tobacco targeted black communities. … It’s extremely disturbing, we’ve been here before. We don’t need a bunch of studies. The only studies we need are the millions of casualties that are behind us and that we run the risk of seeing ahead of us.”
The Centers for Disease Control says more than 1 in 5 high school students and nearly 1 in 20 middle school students vape. For high school students, there was a 78% increase between 2017 and 2018. Eight out of 10 children don’t recognize that JUULs can cause harm, “as we learned from the youth who spoke today,” Pressley said, acknowledging Mintz and Fuhrman.
JUUL’s co-founder and other company executives will testify before the committee on Thursday.