The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul

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Excerpts taken from longer article available here.

Teens have taken a technology that was supposed to help grownups stop smoking and invented a new kind of bad habit, molded in their own image.

An analyst at Wells Fargo projects that this year the American vaporizer market will grow to five and a half billion dollars, an increase of more than twenty-five per cent from 2017. In the latest data, sixty per cent of that market belongs to Juul.

That’s just a fraction of what old-fashioned smoking brings in—the U.S. cigarette market is worth a hundred and twenty billion dollars. But it’s a fast rise after a long wait: inventors have been attempting to develop a successful electronic cigarette since the nineteen-sixties. Traditional cigarettes pair nicotine—which, contrary to common belief, does not cause cancer—with an arsenal of carcinogenic substances. As the harm-reduction pioneer Michael Russell said, in 1976, “People smoke for the nicotine, but they die from the tar.” And so people keep looking for healthier ways to deliver a fix. 

Since the sixties, cigarette companies, starting with Philip Morris, have freebased nicotine using ammonia, which liberates the nicotine so that it can be speedily absorbed into the lungs and the brain. As one addiction expert has said, “The modern cigarette does to nicotine what crack does to cocaine.” Pax Labs discovered that by adding benzoic acid to nicotine salts, which occur naturally in tobacco, they could mimic a cigarette’s rapid nicotine delivery.

Nicotine is both a stimulant and a relaxant: it peps you up when you’re tired, and if you’re anxious it calms you down. Historically, people have smoked tobacco as soon as they come into contact with it—Native Americans took it up thousands of years ago, the English got started in the sixteenth century—with anti-tobacco campaigns often following closely behind.

he nicotine in tobacco binds to receptors in multiple regions of the brain, raising dopamine levels and mimicking a key neurotransmitter that affects focus and arousal. This is so pleasing—and life so arduous—that nearly forty million Americans currently smoke, despite knowing that it may give them lung cancer.

This is at least partly why parents are freaking out about the Juul, which has become a ubiquitous presence at high schools in America’s more affluent Zip Codes—precisely those places where, in recent decades, smoking has declined the most. Each week brings dozens of local news stories sounding the same alarm: innocent, vulnerable, sneaky American teen-agers are getting hooked. High schools are holding informational sessions about vaping, sending letters home to parents, investing in vape detectors.

As fears about youth Juuling have intensified, calls for a government crackdown have increased. The F.D.A. did not regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products until 2016. Now e-cigarette companies must submit a premarket tobacco application, or P.M.T.A., in order to keep their products on the market.

Cigarette smoking is still the No. 1 cause of preventable death in this country, killing nearly five hundred thousand people each year. (According to some studies, more than half of longtime smokers will die from smoking-related complications.) It’s incredibly hard to stop smoking; people spend lifetimes trying. Around seventy per cent of American smokers say that they want to quit, and for many of them e-cigarettes have been a godsend.But, according to a 2017 study by the C.D.C., about fifty per cent more high schoolers and middle schoolers vape than smoke. Young people have taken a technology that was supposed to help grownups stop smoking and invented a new kind of bad habit, one that they have molded in their own image. The potential public-health benefit of the e-cigarette is being eclipsed by the unsettling prospect of a generation of children who may really love to vape.

Juuling and scrolling through Instagram offer strikingly similar forms of contemporary pleasure. Both provide stimulus when you’re tired and fidgety, and both tend to become mindless tics that fit neatly into rapidly diminishing amounts of free time. (You can take two Juul hits and double-tap a bunch of pics in about ten seconds. You need an inefficient five minutes to burn a paper tube of tar and leaves into ash.) The omnipresence of Juul on social media has undoubtedly made kids overestimate the extent of teen Juuling—young people tend to think that their peers drink, smoke, and hook up more than they actually do.

And it’s all beyond regulation: the F.D.A. can control the behavior of companies advertising nicotine for profit, but it can do nothing about teens advertising nicotine to one another for free.

A high-school sophomore named Kate, from Houston, told me that the Juulers she knows have their own cars to vape in and cash to spare. You have to be twenty-one to shop at Juul’s online store, and the company requires a match between public records, credit-card information, and government I.D. (The site turns more than a quarter of would-be purchasers away, inadvertently filtering out many adults who have recently moved.) But kids can buy Juuls in bulk on eBay and Alibaba with prepaid debit cards and a little creativity. Juul has a team devoted to taking down such listings, but the company says that it’s like “playing Whac-a-Mole.” “And if you deal Juul you can make a lot of money,” Kate said. She described multiple levels and types of Juul dealers at her school: some sold pods, some sold devices, some would do bootleg refills if you wanted a different flavor or THC oil instead. (The resale markup is partly what makes Juuling an expensive habit for teens. Juul is not subject to cigarette taxes, though, so in places where they’re high—New York, New England, Chicago—Juuling can otherwise be cheaper than smoking.)

“Let’s be clear,” Jonathan Winickoff, the former chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Tobacco Consortium, which is trying to end youth smoking, told me in March. “Juul is already a massive public-health disaster—and without dramatic action it’s going to get much, much, much worse.

But e-cigarettes are definitively safer than cigarettes, aren’t they? There are typically around six hundred ingredients in cigarettes. Juul’s e-cigarette liquid contains only five: glycerol, propylene glycol, nicotine, benzoic acid, and food-grade flavoring. Glycerol is a sweet liquid that has been used in antifreeze, giving rise to the urban legend that e-cigarettes contain antifreeze. But it is also used in toothpaste. Propylene glycol is used in asthma nebulizers. Benzoic acid is a common food preservative.

“If you compare the Juul to a thing that kills one out of every two users, of course it’s safer,” Winickoff said. “And it’s not just Juul,” he went on. He noted some of the by-products of other e-cigarette vapor, including formaldehyde and trace metals. “There are hundreds of different companies. There’s a significant and growing market for bogus, pirated versions of each product.” Some companies sell cheaper, Juul-compatible pods in flavors like blueberry, watermelon, and “strawberry milk.” Vaping, Winickoff said, was like smoking marijuana: “You don’t know what the drug might be laced with.”

I flew to California to visit Juul’s headquarters, in San Francisco. The company had recently moved from a cramped space in the Mission to a renovated warehouse in the Dogpatch, a gentrifying industrial neighborhood that was full of construction equipment beeping gently in the rain. Inside, the office was open-plan and airy, with forest-green trim on the windows and cream-colored walls. A glossy chocolate Labrador sat in the lunchroom, accepting ear scratches in front of an impressive array of snacks—RxBars, Boomchickapop, M&M’s, waffle cookies—and four fridges filled with LaCroix seltzer and craft beer.

There are now around four hundred Juul employees. The company is hiring so rapidly that about twenty new people show up every week at the all-hands meeting. Many of the new hires come from other tech companies: Tesla, Fitbit, Facebook. Some are former smokers who have switched to Juuling—one of the office’s few pieces of visible Juul paraphernalia is a large locked cabinet with a stack of pods that employees can purchase at a discount.

Many Juulers I talked to found themselves taking in more nicotine with Juul than they had with cigarettes—going through a pod a day, say, when they were never pack-a-day smokers. A low-nicotine option would help ease their dependency, and the company briefly experimented with lighter formulations. Currently, the pods are five per cent nicotine by weight.uul eventually decided to release low-nicotine pods in mint and tobacco, which will be out later this year. Internationally, Juul plans to introduce an Android app that allows users to track their nicotine intake.

To read the full article, originally published in The New Yorker, it is available here.

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