By Kayla Jimenez
The first time I saw someone using a JUUL was almost two years ago. I was sitting in a group study room at Bartle when a friend of mine pulled out this strange flash drive looking thing and starting vaping. Suddenly, I started seeing people across campus JUULing left and right: in the Marketplace, in line at Dunkin, on the blue buses, in class… by the end of 2017, I didn’t even notice them anymore.
But I did notice when my then 15 year old sister began JUULing. And my boyfriend’s younger brother. And all of their friends. “Bro, my friend hit the JUUL so hard he almost threw up!” I’d see videos on Snapchat of sixteen year olds with three JUULs in their mouth at a time. I knew things were going too far, and it became clear that there was a broader trend of young people vaping at ridiculous levels.
I was waiting for something to happen, though I’m not sure what. It wasn’t until this past spring that articles began to appear proclaiming the concerns of parents, health professionals, and regulators nationally. Then came the FDA drama that escalated about a month ago, when Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced new potential regulations to come to the e-cigarette industry. A variety of regulatory options came into discussion, with the most extreme consideration being banning the sale of e-cigarettes on the whole. The ultimate conclusion was announced on September 12th: JUUL has sixty days to prove it can keep its products out of the hands of kids and teens. This is because the FDA’s primary concern is that minors are developing nicotine addictions due to the JUUL craze.
To get a deeper dive on this issue, I’m posing a couple of questions here: Why are JUULs the focus? Why now? And why consider regulation?
Vaping was popular before JUULs, but not this popular. I remember kids when I was in highschool hitting e-cigarettes and other various vaping devices. But nothing has taken off as the JUUL has. According to The Wall Street Journal, the JUUL accounts for “72% of the estimated $2.3 billion annual U.S. e-cigarette market.”
Additionally, JUULs do not resemble cigarettes in the slightest. Their sleek look disguises their potentially harmful content. High school and college students assume there really aren’t side effects or risks involved when hitting JUULs.
Unfortunately, there are health risks associated with JUULing and vaping nicotine products in general. According to the Boston Globe, “Chronic nicotine exposure may lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. . . . Inhaled nicotine increases heart rate and blood pressure. Nicotine is highly addictive in its own right, and it may lead to changes in the brain that increase the risk of addiction to other drugs, especially in young people.” Though the risks of getting lung cancer and other diseases typically associated with cigarette use are reduced, there is still the concerning fact that young people are addicting themselves to nicotine.
To get a better idea of what role JUULs play in high schools, how high schoolers are getting JUULs and pods, and how much they typically consume, I asked my sister a few questions. She said that she was in 10th grade when she bought her first JUUL at a local convenience store – she has bought three total since then. In order to buy more pods, she either asks her twenty-year-old friend to purchase them for her at 7-Eleven, or she simply purchases them herself from a local shop… mind you she turned seventeen only a few weeks ago. In my area, the legal age to purchase nicotine products is twenty one. When she described her consumption levels, she noted that she usually goes through about a pack, which contains four pods, in two or three days. This adds up to about 2 packs a week! According to Vox, one JUUL pod contains as much nicotine as two packs of cigarettes. So she’s consuming the nicotine equivalent of sixteen packs of cigarettes every week. Yikes!
I know anecdotal evidence is trash, so I wanted to note that my sister is probably on the heavier side of the consumption distribution curve. Since there really isn’t a lot of specific data out there detailing how many pods are being consumed by minors, I’d say the average teenager likely intakes about half of the nicotine she does. But that still adds up to inhaling the amount of nicotine contained in 8 packs of cigarettes on a weekly basis.
No other e-cigarette has gained the level of popularity that JUULs have. Not only is the FDA after JUULs, but countless other state and local governments are looking into the company’s practices. Lawsuits, bans, restrictions, education campaigns… it goes on and on. People are particularly upset because they feel as if JUULs are specifically targeted towards a young audience: they look cool, come in fun colors, have sweet and appealing flavors, and charge on a laptop. After decades of anti-smoking campaigns, people are blaming the JUUL for the rise in teen nicotine consumption. Vice stated “JUUL seems to be insanely popular among kids who otherwise might not smoke.” The FDA is stepping in because of this: teens who otherwise would not have consumed nicotine products are now much more likely not only to vape or JUUL, but also to try cigarettes and other nicotine products. Business Insider explained this concern, reporting that “Young people who vape are between two and seven times more likely to eventually smoke conventional cigarettes compared with teens who never try e-cigs, according to a spate of research published over the last three years. A March study from Dartmouth University put the trend into stark numerical terms: the results suggested that 2,070 adults across the US used e-cigs to quit smoking in 2015, but another 168,000 young people who used the devices went on to become smokers of conventional cigarettes.”
JUUL is making puffs of smoke (now vapor) cool and trendy again, going against the public health efforts of the previous few decades. On a positive note, it is overall healthier for people to consume nicotine through JUULs than through cigarettes. However, there is nothing good that can come out of addicting another generation to nicotine. It’s an expensive habit with potentially adverse mental and physical health impacts.
The alarming rates at which e-cigarette use is spiking amongst teens is cause for concern. People have begun referring to it as an “epidemic”: one standout quote from Gottlieb states “The number of teenagers we believe are now using these products… has reached an epidemic proportion.” A 2017 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that 11.7% of high schoolers had vaped in the last 30 days. Nearly 3.6 million students are expected to graduate from high school in 2018–19, so roughly 421,200 high-schoolers are vaping on a regular basis. That is significantly higher than in years past.
As we are all too familiar with, whenever there is panic or concern in this country, people immediately turn to the government to step in and do something. But is federal regulation necessary? Will banning Juuls to any extent be a legitimate solution?
Spoiler alert: this is the Review, so you already know I’m not going to support a full on ban of JUULs. We already have laws in place, such as age restrictions, that are not being effectively enforced. As part of the “you have 60 days to prove you can keep JUULs away from kids” announcement, Gottlieb also sent a warning to retailers. The FDA website states, “In the largest coordinated enforcement effort in the FDA’s history, the agency issued more than 1,300 warning letters and civil money penalty complaints (fines) to retailers who illegally sold JUUL and other e-cigarette products to minors during a nationwide, undercover blitz of brick-and-mortar and online stores this summer.” I think this is a great first step in limiting teen access to e-cigarettes… actually enforcing laws that already exist and holding retailers accountable!
Also, what does the FDA mean exactly when it says JUUL Labs needs to prove it can keep its products away from kids? Developing sh*tty marketing campaigns? Stopping online sales? That is not going to happen. One thing I do agree with is the fact that this ambiguous statement puts the ball in the court of the company to take action rather than jumping straight to new legislation. Give JUUL Labs the chance to solve the problem it (may or may not have) created.
On September 25th, Gottlieb said the FDA is considering a ban of all online sales of e-cigarettes. While that is extreme, it is the most challenging to regulate the age of buyers online because so many third party sites resell e-cigarettes. Instead of fully banning online sales, my recommendation is limiting who can sell e-cigarettes online so that these sellers can be regulated and can ensure only those of age are purchasing these products. Though that would benefit very few companies and artificially create an oligopoly, that’s a loss I’m comfortable with. If only a few companies have the opportunity to profit off of e-cigarettes, but there would be a reduction in underage access, it seems like a tolerable trade-off. Let the manufacturers sell directly to consumers, as they do already. Restrict online sales to the manufacturers and a few primary sellers. This would preserve the industry while decreasing accessibility for minors.
Though regulation is not always the solution, in this case, enforcing already existing regulation and figuring out a way to enforce this existing regulation in the online space is the best way to prevent minors from purchasing JUULs. I personally do not want to see young people developing nicotine addictions because JUULs are irresponsibly sold to them and all too easy to access. Additionally, developing public health campaigns and educating people about the high levels of nicotine in JUULs and other similar products, and detailing the expense of a nicotine addiction, can discourage people from developing the habit in the first place.
We have the legal minimum age of purchase on substances like these for the purpose of providing a barrier to a young mind making a costly and long-term mistake for themselves. On the other hand, with so much education on the dangers of nicotine and other similar substances, can young people start to be held (at least partly) responsible for the unhealthy choices they make, whether that’s for the JUUL or another subtance? I’ll let you decide, but it will be interesting to see whether the FDA will, in fact, pass the JUUL.