By Grace Chisholm and Robbie Veglahn
*Names Changed to Protect Identity
Senior Jack Bernard* looks around his third hour class and sees seven boys charging Juuls in the USB ports of their Macbooks. To an unsuspecting eye, the small metallic devices could be flash drives. But Bernard knows they’re not typical school supplies; Juuls are the latest vaping products to reach East.
And they “hit hard,” he said, harder than other e-cigs. Each Juulpod Bernard uses — typically one a day — contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes according to Juul’s manufacturer, PAX Labs. But with no current federal regulation, health officials are unsure of the Juul’s impact, which some say scares them.
When Bernard’s Juul flashes green, fully charged, he wants to make another trip to the bathroom for a “hit,” like he does five or six times every day — but the class is watching a movie, and he can’t leave.
With his old e-cigarette, he would have no choice but the bathroom. With smaller “clouds” and a lack of smell, the Juul gives him another option.
“I’ll just take a hit with it cupped in my hands and blow it into my jacket so no one can see,” Bernard said. “That’s why it’s so nice, I could never do that with a big e-cig in the middle of class.”
Bernard’s not the only one using a Juul, though legal purchasing age is 18. According to a survey of 497 East students, 32 percent have used a Juul. It’s easy to use and conceal: its streamlined design can fit into a pocket or wallet unlike many other e-cigs.
To Juul users like sophomore Grace James*, above all, it’s cool. James said just “having it in your hand” makes you look better at a party. The Juul is so “cool,” in fact, that 41 percent of upperclassmen boys use five or more Juulpods each week, the equivalent nicotine consumption to five packs of cigarettes.
Such a discreet product is different from the “big honking machines” that e-cigarettes used to be, according to assistant principal Britton Haney, making it difficult for authorities to detect.
Currently, the effects of the Juul remain a mystery: there is little to no research on the Juul and nearly no regulation of the e-cigarette industry as a whole according to federal health officials and preventative medicine doctors.
The Juul has infiltrated classrooms, bathrooms and parties in a matter of months. One in four upperclassman males now own a Juul. And of those who said they have used a Juul before, 40 percent said that they have used them at school, despite the district’s no tobacco policy.
Kids like Bernard have charted out the best bathrooms — the ones without teachers in them —throughout day to take a few hits. Bernard said groups of friends will fill the sink-area with clouds of vapor during passing period.
According to Haney, multiple students have complained about Juul and vape use, though only one student has been caught with a Juul. Its size and lack of smell leave it undetected; 80 percent of students surveyed feel that if they wanted to, it would be easy to hide a Juul and use it in school without getting caught.
The Juul has remained unknown in the adult and medical communities as well, having only been on the market since June 1, 2015. Professional sources including contacts from the Center for Disease Control, KU Medical Center and the Kansas State Legislature didn’t know what a Juul was prior to requests for interviews for this piece.
On May 5, 2016, the FDA extended its jurisdiction over tobacco products to include every kind of electronic nicotine delivery system, including Juuls. A plan has been laid out for the introduction of each step of regulation. However, no regulation of the manufacturing, distribution and sale of e-cigarettes or vaping products will go into effect until 2018 according to the American Lung Association.
“I mean there’s just no control,” said Dr. Edward Ellerbeck, Chairman of Preventative Medicine at KUMC. “It’s like you went to your garage and said ‘Oh I’m going to mix some stuff up here. This looks like nicotine. I’ve got some rat poison and on the side it says it has nicotine, so I’ll throw a little bit in.’ Nobody’s watching over [the manufacturers].”
Despite the lack of regulations, many users such as James believe that “Juuling” is safer than smoking cigarettes. Compared to the 32 percent of students who reported having used a Juul, 21 percent of students reported having tried a cigarette in a poll taken by the Harbinger in October of last year.
But according to James, it’s not the fact that students think Juuls are safer than cigarettes that is drawing them in — it’s the stronger “buzz” and easy access anytime.
“I honestly don’t think anyone cares or pays attention to whether it’s healthy or not,” James said. “It’s just like, ‘I’m invincible, it’s not going to hurt me’.”
Dr. Brian King, Deputy Director for Research Translation in the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, said the long-term effects of using e-cigarette products including Juuls is unknown because they’ve only recently reached the market.
For regular adult smokers, e-cigarettes like Juuls are a safer alternative, Ellerbeck said. E-cigarettes do not produce smoke like regular cigarettes do, therefore reducing certain carcinogens released in the burning of tobacco.
“E-cigarettes generally emit lower levels of dangerous toxins than regular cigarettes. However, safer is not the same as safe,” King said. “Youth should not use any type of tobacco product, regardless of whether it’s smoked, smokeless or electronic.”
The concerning part about young people using vaping products, however, is the level of nicotine consumption, Ellerbeck said.
The younger a person starts using nicotine, Ellerbeck said, the more likely they are to become dependent. Research has found that nicotine rewires the reward system in the brain; in the still-developing brains of young people, this can be especially destructive.
Thirty-six percent of male upperclassmen reported using a Juul five or more times a day, taking multiple hits on each occasion. And they’re inhaling more nicotine per hit — while other e-cigarettes typically sell e-juices with concentrations of 2.4 percent, Juulpods contain 5 percent.
With more than double the concentration of nicotine, Bernard saw that as reason enough to buy another Juul for $50 just two days after losing his first. The two days he went without, “it was all [he] could think about.” It wasn’t like he needed it, he said, but he just couldn’t wait for another buzz.
Half of the calming, pleasurable sensation of nicotine fades away every two hours, Ellerbeck said. Once that happens, users starts to feel jittery and anxious, and crave that nicotine delivery again.
“It’s not like I am constantly feeling like I have to do it,” Bernard said. “But I do probably go to the bathroom once every two hours or so to ‘Juul.’”
What also concerns Ellerbeck about the Juul is the flavors of Juulpod juice offered: mango, virginia tobacco, cool mint, fruit medley and creme brulee. Ellerbeck believes the designs, flavors and branding of products like the Juul show that the industry is targeting younger audiences.
An occasional cigarette smoker, sophomore Dan Thomas* couldn’t imagine going back to cigarettes after a few months of “Juuling” exclusively.
“[My friend and I] both ripped [a cigarette] at a party and looked each other and said ‘This just is not as good anymore. It just sucks now’,” Thomas said. “The taste was awful and we’d forgotten how bad we smelled after.”
The creators of the Juul did not respond to interview questions, but CEO of PAX Labs Tyler Goldman issued this statement to the Harbinger:
“Juul was created to be used as an alternative to traditional smoking for adults of legal smoking age only,” Goldman said. “We take the underage use of any nicotine products very seriously, and we strive to keep our products out of the hands of minors.”
Despite Goldman’s statement, in Ellerbeck’s experience, traditional smokers aren’t concerned with flavors or hiding the fact that they smoke “like the kids sneaking Juuls under their sweatshirts do.” The more that electronic products look, feel, smell and taste like normal cigarettes, the happier traditional smokers are.
“If I would talk with my 50-year-old smoker who has [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and I ask them, you know ‘Would you like some fruit punch flavored e-cigarette?’ they would laugh me out of the room,” Ellerbeck said.
Though minors using tobacco products is illegal, students with fake IDs buy Juuls and their pods for themselves, and those of legal age often buy and distribute Juulpods in bulk — and then sell them for a profit, Bernard said. What he doesn’t keep for himself, Bernard sells to other kids. By up-charging an extra $3 for a $17 pack of four pods, he’s made over $50 selling them to younger students.
Groups of friends have made day-trips out of driving to Lawrence vape shops to buy pods, because all the local stores have been out of stock, Bernard and Thomas said. Recently a store in Lenexa began carrying Juul products and has become a closer option for students who want a quicker replacement for their Juulpods.
J.C. Carroll from Let’s Smoke and Vape Shop KC, has noticed the increase in Juul popularity. Though he doesn’t have concrete sales information — he’s still waiting to receive his Juul product shipment — he believes the Juul will outsell other options. He gets multiple calls every day from customers asking about Juuls.
Organizations like Tobacco 21 KC are working to get the Juul and other tobacco products out of the hands of minors. Tobacco 21 has pushed to restrict the use of tobacco products by teens by raising the purchasing age for tobacco products from 18 to 21. Several local cities, including Prairie Village, Leawood and Lenexa have adopted this legislation.
But while it is included in their push for legislation change, Scott Hall, Tobacco 21’s representative in the KC Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t believe the Juul will be a lasting trend.
“[The popularity of the Juul] gives us a reminder of the importance of our work, but this product is just the latest in the series of things that catch on quickly, especially with young people,” Hall said. “In two years, there will be something entirely new that replaces Juul in this market, I suspect.”
Ellerbeck doesn’t see this trend going away. He imagines that once the government does begin to regulate e-cigarettes like the Juul, a few major players will have survived, mirroring the current Big Tobacco industry. Manufacturers could give away Juuls for free, he said, and “bank on the fact” that people will “become lifetime users.”
However, James agrees with Hall that the Juul is a fad.
“Anything electronic kind of goes away,” James said. “I feel like there will be something else. These came after vapes, and something will come out that’s worse than this.”