Many adults today are turning to vaping as an alternative to traditional cigarettes. Some adult users just enjoy jumping on the bandwagon when new trends emerge, while others are desperate to wean themselves away from cigarettes and see vaping as a possible escape hatch.
Whether vaping can really deliver on these thinly-veiled promises remains to be seen. In the meantime, a new and arguably more serious issue may put vaping out of business before we ever find out.
Today’s youth have seemingly fallen hard for e-cigarettes. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a whopping 37.8 percent of underage users reported having experiences with vaping. This is an unprecedented rate of use for any substance and one that has not only raised awareness to officials but has also overturned a previous decline in youth nicotine use that itself was decades in the making.
Vaping’s Appeal to the Youth
NIDA officials say it is not just the amplifying effect of tobacco that draws youth to e-cigarettes. Today’s vape packaging is sleek and easy to conceal, the flavors are yummy and ever-changing and, well, it just looks cool to vape. While there is some lingering doubt as to whether new youthful users really understand that nicotine is most likely hidden underneath tasty concealers like mango or mint, experts are also not sure it would matter much.
Students say they are influenced to try vaping because someone they know already vapes, because they like the flavors and because the students believe vaping is a healthier choice than smoking cigarettes. This is where parents and legislators are deeply concerned they may be wrong.
The truth is, once young users do begin vaping regularly, they often get hooked. Because vaping is so prevalent in middle and high schools today – far more so than the use of traditional cigarettes – once hooked, it then becomes desperately hard for them to stop vaping.
The tendency of the young to embrace trends seen as new and exciting is nothing new. Unfortunately, even today’s parents often don’t recall how, back in the 1930’s and 1940’s, physicians often advised patients to smoke cigarettes for their health and even gave advice about which brands to use.
It took a series of lawsuits, beginning in the 1950’s, to eventually force cigarette manufacturers to at least warn users about the carcinogenic properties of nicotine.
The Influence of Juul on Youth Vaping
While no single vaping manufacturer can be held fully responsible for the dramatic rise in tween, teen, and young adult vaping, there is one company that bears a greater percentage of responsibility. That company is Juul. Pronounced “jewel,” Juul currently controls about 50 percent of the vaping market in North America.
Juul e-cigarettes are not cigarettes, they are called “pods.” The sleekly understated e-cigs themselves could readily pass for thumb drives or palm-size smart devices, further endearing them to young users. Users are not smoking or even vaping, they are “juuling.” School bathrooms have now become “Juul rooms.”
The vast majority of students polled maintain that Juul e-cigs and refill pods are either “easy” or “very easy” to obtain. Best of all, Juuls are very affordable – a four-pack of refill pods costs about as much as a couple of barista-blended coffee drinks.
Juul’s CEO, Kevin Burns, recently issued public statements to the effect that the company is not marketing e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes. However, it is getting awfully hard to believe this, since the entire future of the vaping industry currently rests on whether the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can prove e-cigarettes are a useful tool to help adult users quit smoking. Should research fail to support this claim, Juul and its competitors could face the early demise of a once-promising global marketplace.
This is just what parents of addicted teens are hoping for – and some have begun pushing for it in earnest. While Congress pushes Juul for the truth behind the company’s aggressively youth-oriented marketing campaigns and in-school “nicotine education” programs, their parents are going on the record with horror stories of their own.
Parents are being forced to watch as their formerly straight-A students descend into what some mothers are calling a “tsunami” that is pulling young users into its powerful undertow. Young users who do come up for air and want to quit are facing stiff obstacles to finding treatment and rehabilitation – obstacles that are largely absent for adult addicts seeking help to quit.
Many powerful lawmakers and celebrities have begun speaking out against e-cigarettes, vaping and Juul in particular. Highly visible detractors include President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, actor and producer Judd Apatow and others. However, Juul has also built its own powerhouse social media machine, inserting itself into pop culture using hashtags like #Juul to keep the company’s products in front of the greater public eye.
While Juul’s CEO and spokespersons take issue with being held accountable for what to all appearances is a blatantly youth-focused and constant push for growth and expansion, it is awfully hard to ignore Juul’s co-founders’ insistence that their startup is now and has always been focused on delivering a product designed for the public’s highest good.
False Marketing & Targeting Youth
So far, it would seem that actions speak louder than words. While there is something to be said for developing new ideas for helping addicted adults transition away from traditional cigarettes, the original premise never mentioned anything about creating a whole new generation of addicts in the process.
The truth is, the ingredients list in Juul refill pods speak for itself as far as whether the product could be potentially addictive just on a purely physical level. At its very simplest, the average Juul contains tobacco, nicotine salts, artificial flavors, glycerine, propylene glycol and oxygen as a combustion agent. This isn’t anything any parent would want their child consuming.
It is also hard to ignore the statistics indicating that adult vape users favor a different delivery system than do underage users. Traditionally, adult vaping consumers have opted for an open e-cigarette system that is refillable with custom-blended liquid rather than a closed system that uses disposable refill pods. Has Juul always had the youth market in mind? The data would suggest this may be the case since its product features the exact type of economically closed system young users favor most.
Parents argue that fewer carcinogens do not equal non-carcinogenic, at the same time their tween or teen is inhaling their first puffs of creme or strawberry vapor. In September 2019, the FDA sent Juul’s CEO a written warning stating that the company had violated the law by promising e-cigs are safer than cigarettes.
The FDA Wants Proof of Safety Claims From Juul
The FDA has arrived late to a number of similar social media-fueled parties over the last several years. Facebook and Google are just two of the giants that caught federal regulators unaware of their rapid growth and massive social influence. Today, Juul is being likened to the Google of the e-cig marketplace, with the FDA’s oversight team just now beginning to apply the type of pressure that is likely to bring more truth than fiction to light.
At the moment, Juul and other similar e-cig manufacturers are in somewhat of a grace period – or perhaps the eye of a particularly volatile hurricane. They have until May 2020 to prove to regulators at the federal level that their products can do more good than harm. If by this time next year Juul and company cannot make good on their claims that e-cigarettes have a valuable place in the greater spectrum of public health aids as an alternative to more toxic traditional cigarettes, they may just bear witness to the total collapse of their industry.
If and when this occurs, up first on the chopping block will be Juul’s most popular product offerings: those nicotine-concealing flavored pods. Without the flavorings, youth are less likely to fall prey to taste without realizing there is a highly addictive toxic cocktail barely concealed just beneath.
Interestingly, one of the many actions Juul has taken to adapt to such a rapidly-changing landscape is to post open jobs for a position called the “FDA regulatory counsel.” Juul’s CEO has been outspoken about the company’s intention to comply with regulatory guidance and adopt transparent business practices. The company’s founders continue to assert that their intention is to target adult users, and specifically current or former cigarette users who do not want to continue smoking traditional cigarettes.
Juul has taken some steps in this direction, such as removing its social profiles on youth-centric Facebook and Instagram, removing all flavored pods except mint and menthol from the market and working with some of its distributors to increase I.D. checks prior to product sales.
Will it be enough to help young users avoid the trap of addiction and potential conversion to traditional cigarettes later in life? Right now, it is truly hard to tell. But for parents and youth already struggling against e-cig addiction, it is clearly a case of too little too late.
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- Jamie Ducharme. “How Juul Hooked Kids and Ignited a Public Health Crisis”, Time, https://time.com/5680988/juul-vaping-health-crisis/. Accessed September 30, 2019.