The leading maker of e-cigarettes, Juul Labs, attempted to roll out an anti-vaping curriculum in schools earlier this year, offering school districts thousands of dollars and new technologies to implement it, according to documents and emails obtained by CNN.
The company abandoned these efforts in May, not long after its initial outreach, in response to a backlash from health and education advocates.
“Under no circumstance should anybody from the tobacco, nicotine, vaping industries be involved in or implementing tobacco prevention programs,” said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, professor of pediatrics in Stanford University’s Division of Adolescent Medicine. She published an article last month slamming the curriculum in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Halpern-Felsher, who is also the founder and executive director of the Stanford Tobacco Prevention Toolkit, had been developing her own curriculum on vaping when she was approached by California education advocates who had gotten wind of Juul’s curriculum in late 2017.
She recalled their message: “You guys need to do something yesterday.”
What’s in it?
Halpern-Felsher said the Juul curriculum was “completely missing the most important pieces” of a bona fide prevention effort.
For example, it didn’t discuss the role of industry and marketing in promoting nicotine use. And it touted mindfulness as a prevention tool, despite what she described as a lack of evidence that it works in this context. Some of the curriculum’s exercises included guided meditation and swinging a pendulum over a piece of paper to discuss the “power of the mind,” she writes in the article.
In a version of the curriculum provided by Halpern-Felsher, teachers are referred to a primer video, which links to an Australian vaping company and says that people vape to “reduce harm” and “save money” over cigarettes. (The Stanford toolkit describes the former as a “misperception.”)
At the end of the video: a popup box that says, “New to vaping? We’ll help you take those first steps.”
The materials rarely mention Juul by name, Halpern-Felsher said.
What they did mention, however, was her own work – the Stanford toolkit – which was referenced as a resource in Juul materials reviewed by CNN.
She became aware of this when a colleague falsely accused her of working with or receiving money from the company.
“That’s when I said, ‘wait, something’s going on here,’ ” Halpern-Felsher said.
On the alert
“The Spokane Regional Health District is listed as one of the resources on which they based their prevention initiative, which was of great concern to Spokane,” Frances Limtiaco, program manager for the Washington State Department of Health’s Tobacco and Vapor Product Prevention and Control Program, wrote in an emailed statement.
“However, we were never able to determine how this came to be,” she added.
This prompted Limtiaco and her colleagues to send out an alert in March to Washington schools warning them that “Juul Labs are piloting their prevention program … to middle and high schools.”
“The tobacco industry has a long history of sponsoring youth prevention programming that ultimately undermine evidence-based tobacco control efforts, and JUUL is no different,” the alert said.
No schools or school districts responded to the alert saying they had received offers from the company, Limtiaco noted.
A similar alert was sent by email in February by school health officials with the California Department of Education.
“People have said to me in the schools … ‘I’m concerned because I’m hearing about Juul trying to come to our schools and offering this money,’ ” Halpern-Felsher said.
“There was a lot of confusion.”