Juul and Free Market Moralism

Jason Fehrnstrom, Opinions Editor

The Juul device, a sleek, chic electronic cigarette which delivers a distinctively powerful punch of nicotine, has become ubiquitous in American society in recent years. Juul, the e-cigarette market’s conspicuous victor, captured 70% of the 10 year-old E-cigarette market within two-years of releasing its product.

Their rapid, impactful economic ascendancy speaks for itself. Sales of Juul Pods, which provide the company with the lionshare of its profits, rose sevenfold in 2018 to over 1 Billion dollars.

In spite of pushback and liability issues with the FDA, outraged parents, and public health experts, the E-Cigarette company is only becoming more powerful. They are also trying to reverse the damage of the public criticism they have received for their complicity in a teen addiction crisis.

According to a University of Michigan Study called “Monitoring the Future,” teen tobacco use has fallen to an all time low, at 4.6%. However, in 2018 e-cigarette use clocked in at 19.2% of teens, a 60% increase over the preceding year. Juul, which comprises approximately 75% of the e-cigarette market, has become a particular sensation with this youth market.

Juul has increased its lobbying to congress people by over 157% in the past year. Moreover, the company is trying to position itself as a public health crusader fighting the ill-effects of tobacco with their futuristic alternative. This is an ironic move, given that they have recently become allies and co-stakeholders with Altria, the giant conglomerate behind Marlboro and other Phillip Morris products.

The logic which underpins Juul’s lobbying efforts and defense of these criticisms can adequately be described as being nested within a larger tradition of free-market moralism. According to Juul, the role of the government is to preserve and protect the ability of corporations to act in accordance with their own self interest.

Per this line of thinking, any legislative and public barriers to their profit-making ability are unwarranted, unjustifiable intrusions by the government that are antithetical to the freedom of economic actors in a market-place.

These arguments, which have been used since time immemorial by the business community, are inextricably linked philosophical principles regarding the sanctity of individual and economic freedom.

Certainly, it is legitimate and desirable to maximize the ability of individuals to act in accordance with their own self-interest. The most alluring aspect of capitalist society is seeing individuals with innovative, creative business ideas flourish and succeed by benefiting their consumers.

However, it is not so alluring when the success of a business is predicated upon the promulgation of a public health crisis. Juul has played an integral role in shaping the conditions for an explosion in teen vaping.  The FDA has reported that the number of teen vapers has soared to approximately 4 million.

School districts and parents are reeling. This sleek, ostensibly harmless device has sunk its teeth into the neural pathways of a generation. Nicotine is an incredibly addictive substance. Addiction is not a playful, youthful “phase” that 14 year-olds will gracefully grow out of. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to suggest that a significant portion of these teens will never be able to forgo the effect of this device.

The rationale of free-market moralism, that is, the notion that it is just and right for economic actors to operate without any intrusion from legislative bodies, is only relevant to situations where there is not undue, unjustifiable harm caused by business activities.

For example, the bookstore owner, the shoeshiner, and the flower salesperson. These actors are engaged in processes of voluntary exchange to mutual benefit with their consumers.

Conversely, young, vulnerable Juul owners are addicted. Thus the exchange is less voluntary and agreeable to both sides. Moreover, the economic exchange does not confer mutual benefits. Juul profits, yes, but its consumers drain their savings and become burdened with an unforgiving addiction.

Juul isn’t going anywhere, and it shouldn’t. Indeed, they are taking steps to work with the government to reduce the teen vaping epidemic. It isn’t the job of the government to simply “ban” companies such as Juul. Rather, it is to regulate their behavior in such a way as to minimize the harm of their business activities.

There are a litany of ways that this could be accomplished. Perhaps the public, through the legislative action, should demand that Juul release no nicotine pod options, fund nicotine cessations therapies for addicted teens, and curtail marketing outreach efforts.

According to free-market moralists, these regulations are unwarranted intrusions on business activities that destroy and threaten individual freedom.

However, parents, school administrators, concerned citizens and young addicts themselves might see the situation in vastly different terms. These regulations actually expand freedom in society by offering vital consumer protections to young people who are uniquely susceptible to nicotine addiction.