It’s been a big month for the e-cigarette brand JUUL — and not necessarily a good one.
First there was the robust New York Times piece, detailing rampant teen use of the e-cigarette at schools nationwide. Next, news from the Food and Drug Administration that it was ramping up efforts to stem the tide. “Today
#FDA is announcing several new actions and efforts to stop youth use of, and access to, JUUL and other e-cigarettes,” the FDA’s head, Scott Gottlieb, said in a Twitter thread. “We must—and will—move quickly to address the surging youth uptake of JUUL and other products.”
#FDA’s actions on youth e-cigarette use include retailer blitz to crack down on illegal sale of JUUL to minors. We’re also requiring JUUL Labs to submit important documents to better understand reportedly high rates of youth use/appeal of these products: https://t.co/vlwBMXvLK1
— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) April 24, 2018
Then on Wednesday came an announcement from the company itself that it will support raising the minimum purchasing age for tobacco to 21, as well as hand over $30 million over the next three years to fund “independent research, youth and parent education, and community engagement efforts.” Finally, in perhaps the most telling development of all, a letter from the company’s CEO on its website.
“Let me be clear: we do not want teens or any other non-smokers to ever use our product. I’m not only a JUUL employee, but more importantly I am a parent of teenagers,” the letter from Kevin Burns reads. “I never want my 18-year-old-son or 15-year-old daughter to try JUUL. The product was designed with adult smokers in mind and their need to break the grip of cigarette dependency.”
Whether or not the product was designed strictly for adults, as Burn alleges, remains to be seen. (The company had not responded to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for more information at the time of publishing). But the claim is one critics have dismissed in the past. “Who over 25 is looking for crème brûlée as part of a smoking experience?” a child psychiatrist said to the New York Times in February.
But if the company’s marketing techniques remain a mystery, their hold over young people does not. In some ways, the story of JUUL is one of a perfect storm. The product, created by the founders of the popular Pax (cannabis) vaporizer, hit the market in 2015, just one year after e-cigarette use surpassed all other forms of tobacco use among teens. When a survey at the time (later published in a 2016 Surgeon General’s report) asked teens why they were trying it, they answered: curiosity and flavor.
Enter JUUL, an enticing nicotine alternative that—even today—is in a class all its own. The small device is affordable ($50), discreet, and incredibly potent. At 59 mg/mL of nicotine in each pod, it offers twice the nicotine of many e-cigarettes—the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes in 200 puffs. Add to that flavored cartridges, with names like “cool cucumber” and “creme brulee,” and you’ve got a fan base.
The problem is, the things that make JUULing (the term now used for smoking JUULs) dangerous, are the same things that make it attractive. Its small, sleek design resembles a USB flash drive, allowing students to sneak it easily into school. Its powerful dose of nicotine creates only a tiny puff of smoke, making it easy for teens to use everywhere from the school bathroom to their own. For all of these reasons—and probably for others, too — young people have been flocking to JUUL for years.
But although it may appear like a safe, fun alternative to cigarette smoking, studies have shown that JUUL and other e-cigarettes come with their own risks. A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine this year found that e-cigarettes—while safer than cigarettes—still emit dangerous toxins and carcinogens. Another from the journal Pediatrics this April tied e-cigarette use among non-smoking teenagers to later, regular use of cigarettes in the same population.
These studies, and the many that have preceded them, raise serious red flags about not only teen use of JUUL, but of other e-cigarettes. But these concerns, according to the New York Times piece this month, don’t seem to worry their teen devotees. “I like the feeling of it. The lightheadedness. It makes me feel sober and high at the same time,” a high school student named Sebastian told the Times. “Plus it looks sleek — you smoke it, you look kind of bougie.”
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