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Charleston Business

The lessons business owners can learn from the ongoing vaping controversy

By Tom Martin, Executive in Residence, The College of Charleston

It’s hard to view any news program or website lately without seeing coverage of the controversy surrounding vaping. It seems that more and more e-cigarette users, especially younger users, are getting sick from using the devices. And in some notable cases they are even dying from lung ailments that appear connected to vaping.

The issue is very reminiscent of the debate that began in the 1960s over the health hazards of cigarette smoking. In case you forgot, that controversy culminated in a multi-billion-dollar settlement between tobacco companies and states’ attorneys general. Today if you want to buy a pack of cigarettes, you have to overlook graphic warnings of death on every package, fork over at least $5 and ignore television ads showcasing former smokers who have been horribly disfigured and literally killed by the product. It’s no wonder that conventional cigarette use has plunged in the last few decades.

E-cigarettes first entered the scene as an alternative to conventional cigarettes. They were touted as a way for cigarette smokers to gradually quit the nasty habit through a “healthier” method of getting their nicotine fix, without the harm of combustible tobacco and all the bad things it could do to your body.

But lately, this product has become a villain in its own right. It turns out that e-cigarettes aren’t particularly effective in helping smokers quit the habit. A high percentage continue to smoke cigarettes along with vaping. More troublesome is the fact that vaping has become incredibly popular with teenagers, with some reports indicating up to 25 percent of high-schoolers are now vaping, along with a surprising number of middle school children. In some recent high profile cases, teens have become dangerously ill after vaping, and in a few they have died from respiratory failure that appears to be vaping related.

One company in particular—Juul—has been accused of blatantly marketing its products to young people, through its use of candy-like flavors, colorful packaging and product designs that are easily concealable at home and at school. Is it just a coincidence that Juul’s devices look amazingly similar to USB flash drives? Is Juul really targeting hardcore smokers with flavors like mango, crème brulee and cucumber?

All business leaders can take lessons from this controversy. When products are conceived, the total impact of the product on all constituencies must be considered. There is ample evidence that some cigarette smokers have used e-cigarette products to wean themselves off conventional smoking products. And there is plenty of data that shows that vaping is indeed less harmful in the long run than smoking cigarettes. 

But where Juul and other companies may have crossed the line has been in the way they seemingly marketed, packaged and targeted the new products. 

Juul does have strong warnings on its products, its websites and its advertising that nicotine—the key ingredient—is highly addictive, and it clearly states that its products are not meant for underage consumers. But what is being challenged is the way it chose to design and market its products. 

It’s hard to believe that Juul didn’t understand that putting candy-like flavorings into its products wouldn’t make them more attractive to younger users. It also stretches the imagination to think that designing the products to look indistinguishable from flash drives wouldn’t make them more easily concealable for users who want to hide their behavior. 

Some are now calling for banning the products altogether, or at a minimum restricting the production of flavored contents that appeal to younger users in light of the recent reports of deaths and serious injuries to some who have vaped. It will take months if not years to resolve these issues.

But vaping and e-cigarettes are just the most recent examples of alleged acts of corporate irresponsibility generating headlines. Add them to the long list of companies, products and individuals who have broken trust with their audiences, from pharma companies caught in the opioid crisis to tech companies confronted with privacy concerns to banks setting up fake accounts using real customers’ names.

People who own or manage a business should ask themselves if their products, services or behavior could be called into question. Are they being honest with their customers, employees and investors about the safety, reliability and intent of their product offerings? If their internal documents, meeting notes, emails and texts were brought before the public would they enhance or damage trust? 

Arthur W. Page, the head of communications for AT&T many years ago, was one of the pioneers in corporate communications. He was also an early advocate for businesses being honest and transparent. He said it well when he observed that “all business begins with the public’s permission and exists by public approval.” 

Those words are worth remembering in turbulent times like these when trust has never been more tested.