Photo courtesy of Vaping360 / Flickr

The Juul Craze

In late 2017, Carmel High School in Carmel-by-the-sea, California began issuing warning flyers to its faculty and parent community. Depicting a graphite-colored device that resembled a seemingly awkwardly flat and lengthy flash drive, the flyers read: “This is NOT a USB. This is a Juul, a vaping device. Intervene if you observe the students charging them in class or at home.”  

Carmel High is not the only school in the nation struggling to address the problems posed by this easily concealable device; in a recent briefing with reporters, the F.D.A. commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, said that more than two million middle and high school students were regular users of e-cigarettes last year.

Juul Labs, the producer of Juul, has earned its reputation as a formidable up-and-comer in the industry with the commercial success of its flagship vape pen; since its release in 2015, Juul’s popularity has experienced exponential growth—its sales now represent a third of the total market share of the e-cigarette category, according to Nielsen data. The company recently secured an endowment in mutual funds that would push its market worth to a record $16 billion. Behind its soaring sales, however, have emerged a large number of contentious concerns.

The largest criticism Juul has been subjected to pertains to its user demographics. Since its release, Juul has had a strong following among teenagers well below the legal age limit. The already disproportionally large pool of young users only grew with the increasing popularity and reach of the device. In 2018, concerned academics and health officials have come to refer to the spread of Juul as an “epidemic” and “public health hazard.”

Schools across the nation reported confiscating mass quantities of Juuls disguised as Sharpies and other stationery items in the classrooms, as well as safety concerns over the prevalent practice of Juuling in bathroom stalls. Andrew, a recent high school graduate from California, speaks about the issue, “almost everyone I knew in my class Juuled. In passing, people would talk about the new flavors and complain about the school’s crackdown on vaping.”

Billed as “a satisfying alternative to cigarettes,” the “pod” of the Juul device contains e-liquid made up of nicotine, glycerol and propylene glycol, benzoic acid, and flavorants; each Juul pod packs as much nicotine as one to two packs of traditional cigarettes. Its official website boasts of a consumer-oriented revolutionary smoking experience, “free from ash and odor with unique satisfaction profile, simple interface, flavor variety and lack of lingering smell.” However, many have publicly criticized the design and promotion of Juul as purposely targeting the underage demographic.

The various flavors, as many have argued, serve to dissipate the poignant taste of tobacco and lure younger users to take up smoking. The presentation of the device as an aid to help cigarette smokers quit smoking has also been denounced as deceitful; public-health experts from several universities and the California Department of Health all allege that Juul Labs deliberately markets its products to youth.

The models and promotion materials used by the company have been accused of encouraging nicotine consumption among younger populations by using images that purposefully relate the device to the adolescent social consciousness. A former senior manager with Juul told the New York Times anonymously that he and other company employees "were well aware" that their devices could appeal to teens.

The health repercussions of vaping, especially in the adolescent age group, have been made clear; brain imaging studies of adolescents suggest that people who begin smoking regularly at a young age have markedly reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex and perform worse on tasks related to memory and attention compared to non-smokers. “I didn’t know how addictive it was until about a month ago,” says Andrew. “I was in Europe and I lost my Juul. The next five days before I finally got one in Amsterdam felt like hell.”  Nicholas Chadi, a clinical pediatrics fellow at Boston Children's Hospital, spoke about vaping at the American Society of Addiction Medicine's annual conference this month; Chadi asserted that these brain changes are also linked with increased sensitivity to other drugs as well as greater impulsivity.

Realizing the rising danger to the nation’s youth posed by Juul, the federal government changed their relatively cautious approach from last year. The Food and Drug Administration declared in early September that teenage use of electronic cigarettes has reached “an epidemic proportion,” and it put makers of the most popular devices on notice that they have just 60 days to prove they can keep their devices away from minors. If Juul Labs and four other major manufacturers fail to halt sales to minors, the agency threatened to remove their flavored products from the market. It also raised the possibility of civil or criminal charges if companies are allowing bulk sales through their websites. The order was part of a series of government actions that targeted both makers and sellers of e-cigarettes. The agency also sent warning letters to 1,100 retailers—including 7-Eleven, Walgreens, Circle K convenience shops, and Shell gas stations—and issued another 131 fines, ranging from $279 to $11,182, for selling e-cigarettes to minors.

Sensing the pending danger, Juul Labs moved quickly in an attempt to prevent its potential imminent demise. A recent update to the website saw the replacement of millennial models with middle-aged costumers, seemingly showcasing the company's presumed resolve to shift its target demographic. Will the ban become reality? If so, Juul will be dealt a heavy blow and might swiftly disappear from the public consciousness, remembered only as a brief teenage fad, another trend that faded as quickly as it appeared. Not to mention millions of teenagers might be saved from exposure to some of the most addictive chemicals on the planet. The fates of both Juul and the American adolescent hang in the balance.