(CNN) – Leading e-cigarette company Juul Labs has tried to distance itself from a vast social media presence that experts say drives its popularity among teens.
But a CNN investigation sheds new light on how the company was encouraging – and at times paying for – social media users to promote its nicotine-filled product to thousands of their followers.
For the last 10 years, Christina Zayas has made her living as a blogger and social media influencer. One of her recent jobs was posting positive content about e-cigarette products made by Juul.
"They really wanted to appeal to the younger market, and they did," Zayas said.
Juul had hired an influencer marketing firm, which then reached out to then-35-year-old Zayas in September 2017, hoping to target her 57,000 Instagram followers.
“Juul’s team reached out to me to work together,” Zayas said. “We came up with working on a sponsored post, which is just a blog post, and then one Instagram post. Their budget was, ‘OK, we can offer you $1,000.’”
Zayas said that 5 percent of her followers are in the 13-17 age range. They’re especially susceptible to being influenced, according to Stanford researcher Dr. Robert Jackler, who’s been following Juul since early marketing campaigns more than three years ago.
“They advertised exactly where young people live,” Jackler said. “Young people today are on social media. They’re on their phones continuously throughout the day, looking at social media channels.”
Juul declined an on-camera interview, but said it paid fewer than 10 influencers who are at least 28 years old, who were all smokers or former smokers and who were collectively paid less than $10,000.
Scott Gottlieb, the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said he’s concerned that teens are not aware that many e-cigarettes contain high levels of nicotine, which is addictive, particularly harmful to the developing brain, and more likely to lead to traditional cigarette use.
“I think it’s incumbent also upon the companies that are marketing these products to also take steps to try to crack down on the youth use,” Gottlieb said.
Since the FDA cracked down on Juul this fall, the company said it’s ended its social media campaign in the U.S.
Jackler said it’s too little, too late.
“Turning off Juul's own contribution to this at this point doesn't matter, because it's become a fad and it's taken on a life of its own," he said.
For her part, Zayas has stopped using Juul. And while her Instagram post and blog reached more than 5,000 people, she wonders if it was worth it.
"Stepping back, I think that when I saw all the kids smoking it at this festival during the summer, it just kind of turned me off to it,” she said. “And I'm actually considering writing a blog post on why I quit."