EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to include a statement from JUUL and a change in the headline to specify that nonprofit groups primarily address the potential dangers of underage vaping.
REGION — If you’re a parent of a pre-teen or teenager, your child might be juuling.
Sounds fun you might think, but what is it? A new means of communication, the latest social media platform that adults haven’t yet caught on to, where kids can chat and share photos? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Juuling is the latest iteration of e-cigarettes (electronic cigarettes), a new way to vape. There’s no lighting-up when one uses an e-cigarette, instead the user inhales and exhales a vapor.
The modern e-cigarette was invented by a Chinese pharmacist in 2003, and first sold in the United States in 2006. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control stated that 2 million U.S. middle- and high-school students had used e-cigarettes within 30 days of the survey.
Initially, e-cigarettes looked like small, flip-type cell phones, but with the introduction of JUUL (hence the term “juuling”) in 2015, the devices took on a whole new look. Now, vaping devices can fit into the palm of one’s hand without being seen.
JUUL devices look very much like a flash drive with a USB port that can be recharged by plugging into a laptop. The device holds little pods that come in flavors such as mango, mint and cucumber. Each pod contains nicotine levels equal to a pack of cigarettes.
“Teens are often smoking one to three pods a day,” said Haley Guiffrida, program coordinator with Vista Community Clinic.
Through a grant that initially was to provide education on the dangers of secondhand smoke, Guiffrida has given 40 presentations since January to schools, police departments and self-regulatory organizations, explaining the dangers of vaping, particularly JUUL devices.
“JUUL is one of the most popular vaping devices with youth,”Guiffrida said. “The pods contain one of the highest percentages of nicotine on the market.”
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 66 percent of teens think that vaping products contain just flavoring. In her conversations with teenagers, Guiffrida has found that to be true.
“They’re always surprised when we tell them how much nicotine is in one pod,” she said. “For most of them, this is the first nicotine product they’ve ever used, and they use it because they don’t think it contains any nicotine at all.”
Although Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law in 2016 raising the age to purchase cigarettes and e-cigarettes to 21, Guiffrida said that many retail stores don’t realize that devices like JUUL contain nicotine.
“It’s a matter of educating everyone,” she said.
Teenagers can purchase vaping devices, JUUL in particular, through social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. Hashtags like #doit4juul and #juulnation are used to advertise the product.
“They’re also buying JUUL online and from friends and family,” Guiffrida said.
In a statement posted to the JUUL website, the company said it does not support underage vaping and welcomes continued scientific research into possible health risks associated with vaping.
“We fully support FDA’s efforts to curb underage use of tobacco products, and we believe restricting access to flavors will negatively impact current adult smokers in their journey to switch from combustible cigarettes. Appropriate flavors help adult smokers who do not want to be reminded of the tobacco-taste of a cigarette. We encourage FDA to allow for further scientific exploration on the role flavors play in helping adult smokers transition away from combustible cigarettes,” the statement reads.
“As JUUL Labs works to support adult smokers in their efforts to switch, we also remain steadfast in our commitment to preventing underage use of vapor products. Both goals can be achieved through reasonable regulation to restrict advertising and naming of flavors such as cotton candy and gummy bear that are directed at children. We look forward to continuing to engage with FDA, policymakers, and community leaders on helping to reduce cigarette use while protecting young people.”
Barbara Gordon, a prevention specialist with the San Dieguito Alliance, works with Guiffrida on education and prevention programs, as does Rosalina Herrera, youth development program assistant with the San Diego County Office of Education. They share Guiffrida’s concerns that neither kids nor their parents understand the dangers of vaping.
“It’s all about education,” Gordon said. “We’ll ask kids, do you smoke and they’ll say ‘no’ and then we’ll ask them if they vape and they say ‘yes.’”
Gordon said there’s concern because teenagers become addicted so quickly.
“Once they’ve started vaping, they’re four times more likely to transition to regular cigarettes within a year-and-a-half,” Gordon said, adding that parents “are out of the loop. They have no idea what their kids are doing. JUUL looks like a thumb-drive, there’s no smoke and it smells sweet.”
Despite the fact that JUUL’s packaging has the tagline “the alternative for adult smokers,” all three anti-vaping advocates agree that the manufacturers are clearly targeting teenagers and even pre-teens.
“Why would you name a flavor ‘fruit loops,’ if you’re marketing to adults?” Herrera asked.
“They need to be watched very closely,” Gordon said. “They’re telling districts that they’ll give them $20,000 to $30,000 to develop prevention programs and promising that they’ll create a device that can’t be used on school property. People should be suspicious of their intentions.”
Herrera expressed concern that the Food and Drug Administration has not yet investigated the ingredients in e-cigarettes. The FDA has postponed any legislation on the devices until 2022.
“The little bit of research that has been done so far is fairly new and the products aren’t FDA regulated,” Herrera said. “So right now we don’t know exactly what is being inhaled into the body, and what it’s doing to the body.”
What health officials do know is that the aerosol being inhaled turns into formaldehyde.
“When I talk to kids I explain it this way,” Herrera said. “If I took a bottle of water and sprayed it into my mouth you wouldn’t think anything of it. The drops of water would dry up in my mouth. But what if I took a can of hairspray and sprayed it into my mouth? You’d think that’s not a good thing to do.
Hairspray is an aerosol, not a liquid, so particles are going to get in your mouth and stick there and they’re going to stick to the insides of your lungs. When you vape, it’s the same as if you inhaled hairspray.”
JUUL currently has 68 percent of the market share, but it has competition from look-a-likes such as RUBI and Phix.
“There’s a big market out there,” Gordon said. “Companies will be coming out with new products in the future. We have to keep educating the public.”
Two lawsuits have recently been filed in California against JUUL. In one case, a plaintiff said that he in now addicted to JUUL pods after he started vaping to stop smoking regular cigarettes.
The plaintiff in the other complaint said that he had been a casual weekend smoker and now uses JUUL several times a day. The Massachusetts attorney general has also filed a suit against the company.