The E-cig Epidemic

By Emily Supple

Regardless of whether or not you’re a regular Juul smoker, cigarette fiend, or avid non-smoker, we can all take a critical approach towards young adult Juul usage. These days it is the norm to witness classmates and friends indulge in their flash drive-shaped e-cigarette in Butler, John Jay, 1020, or even in a Monday morning 10:10 am class.

The explosion of e-cigarettes is undeniable as they have become the most common tobacco product among young people, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Additionally, HHS finds that, today, more high school students use e-cigarettes compared to cigarettes and that the use of e-cigarettes is higher among high school students than adults. The FDA has reported that the rate of high school students who have used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days has increased by about 75% since last year, including 3 million middle and high school students. The rapid popularity of Juuls has turned the heads of parents, teachers, public health experts, and government officials attempting to understand what the reintroduction of nicotine in popular culture means for high school students and business regulation efforts.

As role models for teenagers and industry influencers ourselves, it is important that we remain informed about the controversy over the usage of Juuls for young adults. While it is in many ways too soon to know the long-term physical consequences of e-cigarettes on young minds and bodies, it is important to ask: What do we know about Juuls and how should this inform our response to teen use?

We all know that cigarettes are bad for us. Similarly, we all know that nicotine is incredibly addictive, smoking tobacco is detrimental to our health, and that cigarettes are the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. So, then, Juuls must be a lot better for us, right? And the answer is, well, maybe. Each Juul pod lasts about 200 puffs and contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. E-cigarettes operate differently than traditional cigarettes as they create an aerosol by using a battery to heat up the liquid that includes nicotine, flavoring, and other chemicals. It is true that e-cigarettes are less lethal than traditional cigarettes, which contain more than 5000 chemicals, namely because they do not produce the tar or toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide, present in cigarette smoke. But, just because e-cigarettes are not as harmful as cigarettes do not mean they don’t pose their own potential health risks. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance that is associated with several negative health hazards, including the onset of type 2 diabetes, increased blood pressure, and the risk of addiction to other drugs (especially for young people until age 25). Plus, the chemical flavorings in e-cigarettes contain a chemical compound called diacetyl, which is associated with bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare lung disease that causes permanent damage to the airways in the lungs.

Aside from the health risks, it is crucial to understand how Juuls are being used in practice. According to Ashley Gould, the Chief Administrative Officer at Juul Labs, the company was founded by two former smokers for the sole purpose of creating a product to help adult cigarette smokers quit. On Juul Lab’s website, the company statement acknowledges that Juuls can have a negative impact when used by non-smokers and that they are not appropriate for people who do not already smoke. While the company may utilize an age authentication system and voice its own concerns regarding teen usage, most Juul sales happen in retail stores that are not directly under the purview of the company. Thus, we must ask ourselves: What are the potential consequences of Juuls being used by teenagers for their unintended purpose? Researchers, public health advocates, and school officials point to the potential harm of nicotine exposure for high school students as it can lead to a lifelong addiction problem, modify brain functioning, and create a variety of health-related issues.

Further, the large uproar and criticism towards teens using Juuls has a lot do with how they are marketed. Many critics have accused Juuls Labs of using similar channels of communication as big tobacco to market to the teenage audience. This includes their sizable social media presence, the inclusion of cool-looking young models, sleek designs, and tantalizing flavors. Thus, much like smoking cigarettes used to be about the look if it, now it is all about the aesthetic of juuling that makes them appealing to young people. Juul Chief Executive, Kevin Burns, recently announced to reporters that “our intent was never to have youth use Juul. But intent is not enough. The numbers are what matter and the numbers tell us underage use of e-cigarettes is a problem.” Now, in response to anticipated crackdowns from the FDA, Juul released a statement on November 13th that it will no longer use social media to promote flavored Juul pods, such as mango, fruit, créme, and cucumber and that it will remove flavored Juul pods from retail stores, unless they invest in Juul’s age-verification technology. These efforts emerged out of criticism and outrage regarding the company’s marketing techniques from public health experts and FDA pressure rather than the benevolence or moral responsibility of the company. Further, it is likely that Juul Labs’ educational prevention programs are as ineffective as they were for big tobacco companies in the past. Yet, the CDC’s reliance on scare tactics as evidenced by their own campaign, “The Real Cost” is arguably not that great either. This gets at the larger issue of how we as adults often fumble in our approach to discussing serious matters with teenagers.

As we await the results of the F.D.A. investigation that will be revealed any day now, New York Times reporters Matt Richtel and Sheila Kaplan astutely frame the dilemma of teen Juul use. They write, “will it be possible to get people who are addicted to cigarettes to switch to e-cigarettes, which are less harmful, without enticing a new generation of non-smokers to try them?” Perhaps this is the most important question we should be asking ourselves about the teen popularity of Juuls. At the end of the day, Juul Labs is a corporation who’s estimated worth reaches $16 billion dollars. This once small S.F. based start-up, like all others, is therefore bent on increasing profits for their addictive product, and teens, unfortunately, are their best customers as they can become dependent on them for life.