The Cost of Being Cool: The Teenage Vaping Crisis

The Cost of Being Cool: The Teenage Vaping Crisis

To curb the worrisome number of underage users, the Food and Drug Administration has been cracking down on e-cigarette manufacturers, notably JUUL Labs, the behemoth e-cigarette company currently ruling the vaping market. Vapes are still a small portion of the tobacco industry, but growing at a rapid rate. Originally intended to be a healthier alternative to traditional cigarette smoking for longtime smokers, manufacturers have also found a market in the adolescent and young adult demographics.

The problem of teenage e-cigarette use has been labeled an “epidemic” by the FDA. In a statement released by FDA Commissioner Scott Gottleib, he acknowledged the opportunity e-cigarettes present to tobacco users wanting to transition from traditional methods but took a firm stance against teenage usage. He warned, “The FDA won’t tolerate a whole generation of young people becoming addicted to nicotine as a trade-off for enabling adults to have unfettered access to these same products.”

The sleek design of vaping vessels, social media marketing and myriad of sweetly flavored nicotine have come under fire as potential causes for the popularity of e-cigarettes among America’s under 18 age group. Just as children knew who Joe Camel was in the past, they know what vaping is today.

E-cigarettes convert nicotine into vapor, which is then inhaled. They are purported to be less harmful because they do not contain the harmful additives of cigarettes. The nicotine is contained in disposable pods, with e-cigarette tobacco flavors have been likened to candy. The FDA is planning to enact strict measures to limit sales of flavored tobacco in brick and mortar shops for vaping purposes, believing the flavors attract teenagers. Tougher age limitations are also in the works. Ahead of these impending restrictions, JUUL Labs announced it is pulling all flavors – except tobacco and menthol – from retail stores. In addition to that, JUUL products will no longer be advertised on social media.

JUUL products are so pervasive that the name itself is now synonymous with vaping – “Juuling” has become a part of the American lexicon. Last fall, according to data collected by Nielsen and analyzed by Wells Fargo, JUUL Labs accounted for 75 percent of dollar market share in the United States. With an estimated worth of $18 billion, JUUL Labs has also attracted the attention of many big-time investors, including current board member Nicholas Pritzker, cousin of Illinois’ Governor-Elect J.B Pritzker.

Payton Caldbeck, a senior at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, said JUUL is the most popular e-cigarette used by her fellow students. “Whenever a new one comes out, kids in school will post pictures of it on social media and ask if anyone’s tried it, if it’s good and if they should try it.”

While Caldbeck herself doesn’t vape, she thinks about 20 percent of kids at her school do, many of whom are under 18. “I think a lot of the kids who vape are underage; I always hear people talking about having to find someone to go get them pods for the JUUL,” Caldbeck said.  She said mango is the most popular JUUL pod flavor.

Caldbeck said administrators sent emails to parents last year because so many students were vaping in the school bathrooms. “I mean, I don’t think any of the students took it seriously when they were sending emails out and stuff,” she said. “I don’t think they thought it was a big deal, so they keep doing it.”

Valley High School is not the only school trying to prevent kids from vaping on premises. Schools across the country are trying different tactics to stop kids from using e-cigarettes on school property. The School District of Upper Dublin in Pennsylvania has banned students from using USB drives at school because of the JUUL’s resemblance to them.

From April through June of 2018, The FDA issued warning letters and civil money penalties to over 1,300 retailers who sold JUUL and other e-cigarettes to minors. A PDF version of the letter was published on the FDA website. Also listed were the names and locations of the stores contacted by the FDA. In Illinois, 122 stores received either a warning letter or civil money penalties.

Eric Purnell, now 23, started vaping three years ago when he was just barely out of his teenage years. Originally a cigarette smoker, Purnell got a JUUL when it was first introduced.

“I just wanted to vape, I think,” said Purnell. “I liked doing all the smoke tricks, like blowing rings.” His friends, he said, vaped before him and he thought it was cool.

Purnell chose JUUL because it was fast, convenient and didn’t smell like cigarettes. “I looked around, but it was just research for research’s sake; I was always set on the JUUL,” Purnell said. His flavor of choice is mint.

He said he has tried other e-cigarettes besides JUUL. When he moved to Chicago, Purnell accidentally left his JUUL in Philadelphia. “A friend gave me a Phix as a substitute; it was cool, but it wasn’t the JUUL,” Purnell said, referring to a less popular commercial vape pen. “First chance I had, I brought the JUUL back from Philadelphia.”

Purnell said he vapes an “infinite” amount of times per day, and spends about $20 per week on JUUL pods. Citing expense and health risks, Purnell said he would not recommend that teenagers start vaping. “It’s not worth it because of all the side effects,” he said. “It’s dangerous and if you haven’t smoked in your life and you want to start now, it’s a fad thing.”

Teenagers in this era grew up hearing all the detrimental ways smoking affects health. Many of these teens also attended alcohol, drug and smoking prevention programs in school. However, a worrisome number are now starting to develop their own smoking habits. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly 10 percent of eighth graders, 14 percent of tenth graders, and 16 percent of twelfth graders have used e-cigarettes in the past month. The idea of e-cigarettes being less harmful (which is yet to be proven conclusively) than conventional tobacco-filled cigarettes appears to have altered how people view smoking.

“The perception of e-cigarettes in the market early on was that they were somehow healthier than actual cigarettes,” said DePaul University marketing professor Dr. James Alvarez Mourey. “But e-cigarettes still contain nicotine, so it’s not like they are kale or fresh fruit.”

According to Dr. Mourey, the vaping craze is more psychological in nature.

“The problem plaguing e-cigarettes is an age-old problem,” said Dr. Mourey. “People want to be able to indulge in products and behaviors that are marketed as being ‘just like that one thing you always loved, but healthier!’”

Adolescent years are often characterized as an exploratory period. In a 2017 study published in volume 27 of the “Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience” journal, researchers found that teens are less likely to indulge in exploratory risk-taking behavior if they know the risk of doing so. It makes sense then that teens would want to try smoking in a way that is said to be lower-risk.

“My hunch is that people actually perceive vaping, hookah and even e-cigarettes as being healthier than traditional cigarettes,” said Dr. Mourey. “And as we know in marketing, perception matters much more than reality.”

Teens are also attracted to novelty. “The problem is exacerbated for teens who, motivated to find an alternative to smoking, see a sleek, trendy, electronic gadget, which is something that age group is already more interested in anyway,” Dr. Mourey said.

Dr. Mourey said teens are also unlikely to understand the science behind vaping and coupled with the drive to explore, as well as the novelty of e-cigarettes. “It is just sort of a recipe for addictive disaster.”

Dr. Mourey also does not believe the marketing strategy of e-cigarette companies, in particular JUUL, was really geared toward a customer base of seasoned adult smokers, as the company purported it to be.

“If you look at ads for, say, JUUL, what you see are attractive young people, bright colors, all happy things. This is great when the product is something like a gym membership, but clearly it is not as admirable when it is something that could cause harm to the consumer, particularly younger consumers,” he said. “However, keep in mind, given the addictive nature of some products, it behooves companies to hook customers at a young age, whether the companies want to admit this openly or not.”

The marketing of JUUL aligns with this idea. When JUUL debuted in 2015, the company reportedly spent over one million dollars on internet marketing, launching campaigns on Twitter, YouTube and Instagram – a hotbed for teenage engagement.  Since then, the brand, and vaping in general, has seen wild success in that demographic. Something that did not go unnoticed by the government.

This past September, the FDA released a statement saying that the top five manufacturers of e-cigarettes – JUUL, Vuse, MarkTen, blu e-cigs and Logic – were now on notice by the administration because “their products are being used by youth at disturbing rates.” Each manufacturer was given 60 days to return to the FDA “with robust plans on how they’ll convincingly address the widespread use of their products by minors.” Last month, the FDA raided JUUL San Francisco headquarters, seizing thousands of documents.

Pressure from the FDA has caused JUUL to make some changes, making more understated choices in its marketing. Flavored tobacco names have been altered. What was once “Crème Brulee” is now just called “Crème.” “Cool Cucumber” is simply “Cucumber” now. Initial advertising campaigns always featured models who were at least 21, but now the company only features models over the age of 35. JUUL Labs announced today it will no longer promote its products on social media outlets.

The website has taken on a more subdued aesthetic; primarily utilizing black and white font and photography, the limited amount of colors used are showcasing its product assortment. Against a stark black background, large white letters read, “WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.” Below that, the website’s homepage goes on to specify that JUUL was created for smokers as an alternative to cigarettes.

Graphic by Natalie Wade, 14 East.

Former users of tobacco are vaping, but not all prefer the tobacco flavor as originally thought. According to a study published in “The Harm Reduction Journal” last June, adults are increasingly using the sweeter, fruitier, dessert-like flavors. It also suggests that banning those flavors would be discouraging for people wanting to quit smoking entirely.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration has already announced plans to ban flavored e-cigarette tobacco from brick and mortar stores. S.C., who lives in Manhattan and uses JUUL, understands the government’s motivation to ban flavored tobacco.

“It is not offensive to me at all,” he said. However, the pervasiveness of vaping he believes is worrisome; “I think it’s concerning how popular they’ve gotten so quickly,” he said. S.C. started vaping to curb his chewing tobacco habit, which he picked up in college. He uses his JUUL a couple times a week, mostly socially.

Despite being billed as a healthier alternative, there are still health risks associated with vaping. Risks worth considering, regardless of age, when choosing whether to partake in e-cigarette use. “Perhaps the biggest risk is the unknown,” said DePaul nursing professor Dr. Karen Larimer. “The American Heart Association [AHA] believes that these devices have not been evaluated enough to know if they are safe or not.”

Through the AHA, Dr. Larimer has worked to support increased taxation of tobacco products. She also has worked on defending, supporting, and expanding the Illinois Clear Air Act. Larimer educates government officials and legislatures of all levels on the necessity of legislation and the dangers of tobacco and e-cigarette products.

“Nicotine is highly addictive; nicotine ultimately damages blood vessels throughout the body that will ultimately lead to cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of death in the U.S.,” she said.

Aside from the risks of nicotine, Larimer said using e-cigarettes is an ineffective way to quit smoking and should not be billed as a cessation device. “[The AHA] have found that when people adopt using e-cigs as a quit tool they just end up using both,” she said. “It also does not break the psychological habit of putting an inhalation device in your mouth and taking in the addictive component – nicotine.”

She fully supports the FDA’s sale restrictions and crack down on e-cigarette marketing.

“We believe that the lure of smoking e-cigs has a great deal to do with marketing these products to adolescents and young adults,” said Larimer. “Big tobacco’s business model is to sustain a population of smokers in whatever way they can.”

Today’s teenagers may be the future of the United States, but they also may become members of the nicotine-addicted population in the not-so-distant future. Payton Caldbeck already knows people in her school who are suffering from nicotine addiction. She remembers one kid coming to school in tears because they thought they lost their JUUL. Caldbeck also said she hears students joking about being addicted. “People make jokes like, ‘Oh, I should stop using my JUUL, but I honestly don’t think I can,” she said.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports teens who vape are more likely to start smoking cigarettes, cigars, or hookah than those who don’t. Of teens who vape, 30.7 percent started smoking within six months. Only 8.1 percent of non-vapers started smoking. This falls in line with Payton’s experience at Valley High School; she said, “I don’t know of any students who smoked cigarettes before vaping, but I do know of some students who have started using cigarettes after starting to vape.”


Header illustration by Jenni Holtz, 14 East.

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