Juul’s marketing practices are the source of its problems. And if the cannabis industry isn’t careful, history could repeat itself.
As a father who raised teenagers in Colorado in the 2010s, I saw firsthand the damage Juul and mass cannabis did to children. But the marijuana industry doesn’t have to follow the same trajectory. It can (and should) prioritize ethical practices in marketing that stand up to government scrutiny (and let marijuana executives sleep better at night):
Consider your duty as a corporate citizen
It is not enough for the biggest marijuana companies to publicly state that they do not sell to minors if their products harm minors anyway. Colorado reports that while underage marijuana use hasn’t skyrocketed since legalization, the way minors use marijuana has changed. The percentage of high school students who inhaled vaporized cannabis, for example, rose from 5.7% in 2015 to 10.2% in 2019. And as cannabis-infused chocolates and lollipops have grown in popularity, it there were more and more cases of hospitalized children. Because Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, this data should serve as a warning to other states.
Ignoring the problem or trying to blame it on bad parenting is not the answer. Marijuana growers should leverage ethical marketing practices and be clear about their product offerings. Blurring the line between medicine and fun confuses children who can’t yet make the distinction on their own. The marketing and sale of intentionally discreet products such as vape pens and sweet and fruity vape flavors are also increasing the use of minors.
Tailor your marketing to the right audience
Producers also need to watch where they promote products. (The creation of Juul featured young models and placed its advertisements on websites aimed at young people.) If producers place marijuana advertising in digital spaces frequented by teenagers and children, they will create demand among these age groups, even if that is not their goal.
Ultimately, it is not enough to intentionally avoid advertising marijuana products to children. Companies should support parents and educators by actively discouraging minors from using their products and investing in evidence-based public health campaigns. Parents can be both clients and allies in preventing use by their children.
Take a stand against bad examples in the industry
Like any emerging industry, the cannabis industry has its share of unethical players looking for short-term profits. If the industry does not set and live up to its own high standards, it will be judged by those bad apples.
Too often, history shows how professionals turn a blind eye to the damage done by the industries they represent. Remember Camel cigarettes and how the company’s advertising was tied to underage use? Or how British Petroleum was found ‘grossly negligent’ in the 2010 oil spill? Marijuana companies need to think about what they want their legacy to be.
Industry leaders need to step up and set high standards for this emerging market – or they will find themselves in the same regulatory hot water as Juul and other e-cigarette brands.