The Juul Kids' Table

Whatever you think about Juul and vaping, you have to contend with the fact that most teens don’t know vapes contain nicotine and that vaping is addictive.

A few months I went to my high school reunion. When the headmaster of the school made the rounds through class dinners, I had just one question I really wanted to ask him about. “Are all the kids smoking Juuls?” Yes, it turns out, they are. 

For the uninitiated, Juuls are nifty looking vapes that let users vaporize and inhale a nicotine solution. They are also a massive (teen and young adult) cultural sensation. They are also highly addictive, filled with nicotine, and carry dubious long term health affects for the overall population.

Juul’s CEO said the “company’s mission is to eliminate cigarettes and help the more than one billion smokers worldwide switch to a better alternative.”

In general, I support the principle of harm reduction. I think we should have needle exchanges so that intravenous drug users are using clean needles rather than restricting access to needles overall, which contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDs, for example. So even if vaping isn’t harmless, it appears to be better than cigarette smoking and therefore is a net good.

That logic only holds true, however, when you talk about vaping/Juul as a cessation tool. If Juul is diverting nicotine users away from smoking, it’s a net benefit. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. From 2011 to 2017 , the share of high schoolers smoking cigarettes dropped from 16% to just under 8%. In the same time, e-cigarette usage increased from 1.5% to 12%. (CDC) Some quick back of the envelope math shows that vaping is more than making up for the decline in teen smoking: on a net basis, more high schoolers are tobacco users than in 2011.

Though Juul and other vapes are not as bad smoking (and there are still lots of unsettled questions about the long term health outcomes), harm reduction this is not.

The American Cancer Society states that “the use of products containing nicotine in any form among youth is unsafe and can harm brain development.” Public health experts and organizations supportive of e-cigarettes as a promising harm reduction strategy for smokers and staunch opponents of e-cigarettes agree that kids should not be using any type of product containing nicotine. (The Conversation)

Worst of all, whatever you think about Juul and vaping, you have to contend with the fact that most teens don’t know vapes contain nicotine and that vaping is addictive. (US News) That’s a striking failure in policy that has to be addressed.

People should be able to make their own choices and pick their vices. I’m not here to judge. But low information choices are hardly choices at all and companies like Juul are profiting off of consumers’ ignorance and slow-moving laws that have yet to catch up. Vapes like Juul look cool. They’re flavored. They’re all but directly marketed to teens. Juul knows this and they’re actively resisting regulation that would help ameliorate the situation.

Juul has left even allies wondering about its views. The company has declined to take a position on a controversial bill to ease FDA review of some new e-cigarette products. In May, Juul stayed out of an expensive battle over flavored tobacco in its hometown, San Francisco. Then, in June, Juul sent an email blast to consumers asking them to oppose proposed federal and local regulations to ban vapor flavors. (Wired)

Instead of praising the “virality” of the product and comparing it to Snapchat for being such a teen sensation, we need to be holding Juul to the same standard as traditional tobacco companies. It’s viral because it’s 1) highly addictive and 2) deceptively marketed to teens. That’s fucked up and it’s gross.