The hidden juul

The recent rise of e-cigarettes among high school students slip past the public eye

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The hidden juul

Gauri Kaushik and Chelsea Wong

A few of them were JUULing in a school bathroom when an administrator walked in.

“Oh, it smells good in here. What is it?”

As soon as he heard that, the anonymous junior, who will be referred to as Carson in order to protect his identity, pretended to use the bathroom. He was the only one among his friends who didn’t get in trouble that day, despite the fact that he was the one who had everything with him.

Because of their conspicuous design, e-cigarettes like JUULs, and their cheaper, sleeker equivalent, Suorins, have become popular among high schoolers. Dubbed the “iPhone” of cigarettes, sales of e-cigarettes have soared over the past few years, partly due to their popularity among teenagers. According to a press release from the University of Michigan’s Institute of Social Research, in 2017 nearly 19 percent of 12th graders, 16 percent of 10th graders and eight percent of eighth graders were vaping nicotine. The press release also acknowledges that these estimates are lower-bound because many students are unaware of the presence of nicotine in what they vape.

“I quit last year, but I think people that JUUL or Suorin or anything [keep doing it] because just nicotine in general it’s addicting,” Carson said. “It’s hard to stop.”

 

Lost in smoke

 

Physiology teacher Jenna Smith explained that nicotine is a stimulant, which is part of its allure, and it can also be used as an appetite suppressant, another reason some students choose to use it. She also says that it is highly addictive due to the chemicals it excretes in the brain. Each JUUL pod consists of nearly five percent nicotine, around the same amount found in an entire pack of cigarettes, and according to the New Yorker, it’s reported that some JUUL users find it easy to go through nearly one pod a day.  

“[Nicotine] will affect your brain, it’ll cause a release of glucose,” Smith said. “It increases blood pressure, it increases heart rate, it increases your respiratory rate, it actually suppresses insulin, and so it causes an increase in sugar in your blood to get you all jazzy and spazzy.”

Although he used his JUUL nearly every day, an anonymous senior, who will be referred to as Stan in order to protect his identity, believes he wasn’t addicted to the drug, unlike some of his friends.

“When I was using it, I would test, do like a week ‘cold turkey,’ so like not smoking anything at all,” Stan said. “And a few of my friends tried that and they got like physical withdrawals, like they would start sweating and scratching, but I was able to do it pretty easily.”

Despite this, Stan stopped using his JUUL when he caught himself reaching for it too often. He researched the effects of JUULs before he began using them. While Stan says he researched the effects of JUULs before he began using them, his friends often don’t know much about what they use.

“Nicotine itself is not as harmful for you as other substances, but it gets you addicted to harmful chemicals within the juice, which is bad for you,” Stan said. “A lot of my friends ask me [either about what I’ve researched], or they don’t really care.”

Both Carson and another anonymous student, who will be referred to as Jackson to protect his identity, are among those who are not aware of what is in a JUUL pod. Smith echoes Stan’s belief that they are among the majority, and not many teenagers know what the JUUL pods contain. She recounts that last year, during a section on drugs and how they affect adult brains versus teenage brains, the lack of knowledge among her students was evident.

“I think that students are not aware at all. The questions I got were highly alarming. It was clear that you had no idea what you were actually doing just that ‘hey this is what people do and I have no idea how it affects me,’” Smith said. “So it was exciting, because people were asking and we could talk about this and get more awareness out there, but it was also the moment of do we actually know? Not really.”

Despite the fact that he doesn’t believe JUULing is as harmful as other things teenagers may be doing, like smoking actual cigarettes, Stan cautions against getting addicted. As he believes it may lead to using more harmful substances later in life and had made the decision to quit in the beginning of his senior year.

“One of my friends recently got caught by his parents, and his parents bought him nicorette gum and nic patches, and now he’s using those a lot too,” Stan said. “It can lead to worse things. But I think by itself, just JUULing … it’s not that bad.”

According to Smith, most students don’t fully understand the effects of addictive drugs like nicotine can have on a teenage brain.

“It has that drug of nicotine and in addition to that it has other components in the liquid that includes like glycerol, propylene glycol and you’re like ‘ah, well that sounds healthy’ … not really,” Smith said. “[It also has] benzoic acid and other sorts of flavor things.”

 

Targeting teens

 

Although according to both JUUL and Suorin’s websites their products were made for adults who are trying to stop smoking cigarettes, the FDA has recently been looking into whether JUUL has been intentionally steering their marketing tactics towards adolescents. Earlier this year, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb released a statement detailing the FDA’s new efforts to prevent adolescent e-cigarette use.

 

“That’s what they kind of market it as, like ‘oh this one tastes like blueberry’ and then you’re like ‘Oh look I’m inhaling blueberries’ — no you’re not!” Smith said. “You’re inhaling nicotine and glycerol and chemicals and some flavorings.”

According to the New York Times, JUUL received criticism for the names of its JUUL pod flavors, which include sweets like “crème brûlée” — Stan’s favorite — along with mango and other flavors such as “cool cucumber.” JUUL attempted to address allegations that these flavors attract teenage customers by dropping the descriptors, changing them to “creme” and “cucumber”. Yet, many, including Stan, still point to JUUL’s unusual flavors as part of the reason e-cigarettes have become popular among the youth.

“[I think it’s marketed towards teenagers] mostly because of the flavors and stuff, and also it’s like, the new ‘fad’ I guess,” Stan said. “In the 80s, it was cigarettes, and then it was vapes, like mods, and I guess now it’s the smaller, pod systems.”

Peanut butter cookies is Jackson’s favorite flavor of e-cigarette, although he was using lychee at the time. Jackson began using e-cigarettes in late 2017, in order to veer away from smoking cigarettes. He still believes that cigarettes taste better, despite the lack in flavor variety, but he knows that he’s among the minority when it comes to adolescents smoking cigarettes. Others, like Stan, find the prospect of using cigarettes disgusting.

“Smoking has tar in it so it f—s up your lungs. Smoking cigs is not a common phenomenon,” Jackson said. “It’s harder to get cigs. You can get them online but no one does that. I stopped smoking cigs, though — I only smoked cigs for a period of three to four weeks and then I stopped.”

On Sept. 11, 2018, the FDA introduced what could be seen as an ultimatum to e-cigarette manufacturers — find a way to regulate teen use, or their products will be pulled from the market. Specifically, five lead manufacturers, JUUL, British American Tobacco‘s Vuse, Altria‘s MarkTen, Imperial Brands‘ Blu E-cigs and Japan Tobacco‘s Logic, have been ordered to submit plans detailing how they will prevent teens from using their products within the next 60 days. While e-cigarette technology was at first welcomed by the FDA as a way to lead adult smokers away from cigarettes, their popularity among teenagers have reached epidemic proportions. In a report by the CDC, nearly 12 of every 100 high school students (11.7 percent) reported in 2016 that they used electronic cigarettes in the past 30 days which is an 10.2 percent increase compared to 2011.

After years of inhibiting the use of cigarettes, vaping has driven one of the largest rise in teenage nicotine use in decades. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for the first time in 2014, the teenage use of e-cigarettes or vaped nicotine has surpassed the number of teenagers that have smoked actual cigarettes — a trend that still continues.

“The FDA cannot tolerate a whole generation of young people becoming addicted to nicotine as a trade off for enabling adults to access these products,” Gottlieb said in a statement.

The legal smoking age in California moved from 18 to 21 in 2016, in addition to more restrictions regarding the sales of e-cigarettes and the location of designated smoking areas. But even with new laws, the popularity of smoking still continued among teenagers.

Conceal and carry

 

Jackson also drew to attention to the easy access that minors have to these products. He was able procure a JUUL for free by taking a picture of the serial code on his friend’s JUUL and then claiming that it was broken and asked for a replacement on the website. He explained that the JUUL website takes little precaution to ensure an legal sale.

“[It’s] so easy,” Jackson said. “You just go to their website, fake your age, order one.”

Carson, on the other hand, found ordering one on the website too risky of an approach, and instead took a different route.

“I just got it,” Carson said. “It was super easy because I do some other c–p, so I know everyone who JUULs, so I just got it from upperclassmen for free. I wouldn’t risk [ordering it myself] though, I would just buy it from a dealer.”

In addition to being accessible, the inconspicuous design that makes it look like a piece of technology makes e-cigarettes like JUULs and Suorins easy to use at school, perhaps even in class. The ability to easily hide these e-cigarettes is part of the reason Smith beliefs they are marketed towards teenagers.

“Well if you look at them, they’re super colorful, they look like these cool USB cartridges, like ‘check me out,’” Smith said. “And they’re secretive, so you can get away with it it’s not like ‘look at my giant cigar,’ everybody knows what this is.”

Stan says he has charged his JUUL in class, without much of an attempt to hide it since it looks nearly identical to a USB. They can also easily be slipped into a sleeve or a pocket, which is convenient for taking a hit and hiding them in the classroom or at home. Stan also explains another feature with the Juul, where “zeroing” has no exhalation smoke after taking a hit.

“You have to ‘zero’ it [if you use it in class],” Stan said. “So no smoke comes out, basically.”

Jackson recounts an incident in which one of his teachers almost caught him as he awkwardly passed his Suorin to a friend during class. The teacher spotted the interaction and gave a concerning look.

“[They] basically called my friend over and asked him questions, like ‘what was that?’ It was hella sus,” Jackson said. “It was in his pocket the entire time.”

Despite these close calls, Stan, Carson and Jackson have never been caught with their JUUL. They have always managed to slip it into a pocket or a sleeve at the last minute, and because the effects of the nicotine vapor don’t last like marijuana, there is usually no trace, other than perhaps the subtle smell of mango or crème brûlée.

 

Additional reporting by Kamyar Moradi