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Health The shiny lure of the vape

Sep. 4, 2020
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We had only begun the commute home when my friend pulled into the parking lot of the gas station down the block from my college apartment. “I have to buy a STIG,” he explained, ducking into the store and emerging with a box branded “Lush Ice” (which translates to watermelon-flavored). Inside was a black plastic disposable e-cigarette containing 290 hits, the equivalent of 20 cigarettes. For the next two hours, he intermittently puffed on the STIG at red lights and stretches of highway.

E-cigarettes have been around for years—the first commercial version was invented in 2003—though the FDA. didn’t designate e-cigarettes, including vapes, as tobacco products until 2016, citing concerns over a surge in users under the age of 18. But regulations outlawing the sale or resale of vapes to minors couldn’t curb the imminent vaping boom. In 2018, 37% of 12th graders reported vaping, compared with 28% in 2017, according to a study conducted at the University of Michigan. The drastic uptick would be less concerning if vapes were fulfilling the purpose for which they were engineered: a safer, healthier substitute to cigarettes, and a stepping stone for its user to quit smoking altogether. But that’s not necessarily how Juuls are being used, especially not by teens.

Medical professionals are concerned that vaping will have the adverse effect entirely, turning teens, many of whom didn’t smoke cigarettes before they started vaping, into nicotine addicts. Dr. Michael Blaha, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, writes, “I think perhaps the #1 concern about vaping right now is the so-called gateway effect. Our own literature suggests that 2 million young adults use electronic cigarettes as their first nicotine-based product. They’re not trying to quit smoking—they’ve never smoked before.”

As a college student, most of my peers have tried vaping at least once, some of my friends vape regularly, and a few are totally addicted. I had a friend whose roommate lined up rows of old Juul pods on the shelf above her bed, like a little army. Another friend tossed empty pods into an old gym bag. His mom, upon discovery of the stash, threatened to force him to attend Narcotics Anonymous. Of the vape users I know, none were former cigarette smokers.

Ahead of the teen vape epidemic, circa 2015, Juul reimagined the vape with a sleek device resembling a flash drive. Founded by two Stanford product design graduates, who met over smoke breaks, the Juul’s design caters to the inclinations and aesthetics of the average Gen-Z consumer: immediate, discreet, and high-tech while easy to use. The device can be charged via USB port. When you inhale from a Juul (AKA Juuling—it has its own verb), the battery automatically activates to heat and vaporize “juice” (a combination of nicotine, flavors, and other chemicals), emitting a satisfying crackle. The Juul reminds me, in both its profile and its user’s mindless consumption, of the iPhone. 

A trendy design contributes to the idea that a vape merely simulates the sensation of smoking, when in reality, vaping really is pretty similar to smoking a cigarette. For starters, many Juul users don’t know that pods, like cigarettes, always contain nicotine. This was the case for 63% of users aged 15 to 24, which Truth Initiative, a tobacco control nonprofit, reported in 2018. Through vaping, teens are developing nicotine dependencies accidentally, and because vapes are generally viewed as the better, less toxic option, users hold the belief that they can vape more without susceptibility to smoking's harmful effects. 

While Juul is a frequent target of criticism for the duplicity of their vape’s brand as a “smoking cessation” device with a customer base predominately made up of underage non-smokers, their efforts to combat teen vaping have been virtually non-existent. During Juul’s launch, the company spent over $1 million to promote the device on Instagram and YouTube, ads that would inevitably, and perhaps purposefully, be seen by youth. Consequently, Instagram posts tagging Juul or with the Juul hashtag depicted the vape being used by teens and in social settings or at schools. Social media marketing is largely credited for Juul’s success.

Cigarette smoking among adult Americans is at an all-time low—around 14%, a decline of two-thirds since 50 years ago—after decades of efforts by educators, researchers, and healthcare professionals. But just as the U.S. overcame one epidemic, vaping has emerged as its own public health crisis, specially packaged and marketed for the twiddling, tech-dependent hands of this generation.

Photo by Jonas Bardin for New York Mag.