In 2015, Juul began releasing USB-rechargeable e-cigarettes and cartridges (called pods) with 5% nicotine content—the equivalent of one pack of cigarettes—while competing companies offered products at 1-2% concentrations.
Since then, Juul’s popularity has exploded: by targeting a younger demographic, Juul found a seemingly unwitting niche market and as of October 2018, occupied over 75% of the e-cigarette market. In attempts to mirror Juul’s widespread success, other companies followed suit and increased nicotine concentrations.
The results are astonishing. E-cigarette usage swelled by 78% in high school students and 48% among middle school students in just one year, from 2017 to 2018. By the end of 2018, 3.6 million middle and high school students were using e-cigarettes.
Juul and its competitors claim e-cigarettes were created for and have always been meant to help adults quit smoking cigarettes. Although the long-term health effects are unknown, most professionals agree that vaporized cigarettes are safer than regular cigarettes since they lack tar and contain fewer known carcinogenic compounds.
When we asked Leanne Burgos, a first-year biomedical engineering major, she said that Juul and other e-cigarettes have been a crucial step in her quest to quit smoking, recalling that alternative nicotine products did not work for her.
However, it is possible e-cigarettes are doing more harm than good. Despite Juul’s conciliatory efforts to reduce trends of smoking in teenagers after coming under fire from the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), many activists such as Caroline Renzulli, Press Secretary for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, state that Juul has already done all the marketing they need to target teenagers by establishing a large presence on teen-dominated social media, using brightly colored advertisements, and offering candy-like flavors. Now, the trend does all the marketing for them.
Both Burgos and Jeff Chen, a first-year chemical engineering student, agree. The students attribute their attraction to Juul to their flashy, yet concealable nature. “A Juul is relatively discreet compared to other vapes. It’s small. It’s easy. There aren’t so many moving parts that need to be watched over,” says Burgos. They also agree the party tricks and flavors act as a conversation starter.
The appeal of becoming a “Juul fiend,” combined with such high nicotine levels, especially for nicotine-naive children, spells potential addiction. For example, Chen finds no reason to quit “Juuling” because he doesn’t feel any urgency to do so. Despite this, research shows that nicotine in any form is harmful to development of the adolescent brain, which is even more susceptible to addiction at that age. Trace amounts of toxic diethylene glycol and carcinogenic nitrosamines have been found by the FDA in vape juice.
Additionally, dependency on any substance reduces quality of life. As an individual increases drug use or frequency, they develop a tolerance, and more of the substance is needed to provide the same hit. Discontinuing use of the drug results in withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, irritability, and/or drowsiness. Soon, the drug becomes the only way to feel ‘normal’.
E-cigarettes are not regulated by the FDA and are not an officially approved smoking cessation method, such as nicotine replacement therapy with gums, patches, sprays, and lozenges. Instead of providing the addictive rush of a ‘hit’, these products help smokers by releasing low amounts of nicotine over time.
Though vaping may be a significantly lesser evil than smoking and should be adopted first by anyone trying to quit, it ought to be only a temporary stopgap. The only proven, tested methods of quitting an addiction entirely are nicotine replacement therapy and medications combined with behavioral therapy. It may be possible to quit nicotine using e-cigarettes by slowly lowering nicotine content, but this would only be possible by tinkering with customizable vape setups, since Juul only sells pods at fixed concentrations.
The evidence is clear: Juul’s campaign to get more people hooked on e-cigarettes has worked. Perhaps in a country where the number of smokers declines every year, this was the nicotine industry’s grasp at survival—targeting a newer, younger, more impressionable audience. Though e-cigarettes can undoubtedly be a useful tool and are safer for smokers trying to quit, Juul’s manipulation of the vape industry to get underage children hooked on a drug is dangerous and unjustifiable.
Katherine Ji and Parth Agrawal contributed.