The Juul Epidemic

The electronic cigarette company Juul Labs states its mission as seeking to “improve the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers by eliminating cigarettes.” Unlike cigarettes, their products have not yet been shown to cause cancer, yet they still contain nicotine, a highly addictive substance. Even though the company markets a healthier alternative for adult smokers, the most troubling usage is in a much younger demographic. According to the Food and Drug Administration and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five high schoolers vaped in September 2018, a 78 percent increase from 2017. Shortly after these warnings, Juul Labs announced that it would suspend the sales of most flavored pods (for smoking e-cigarettes) in more than 90,000 retail stores in the United States except for mint, menthol, and tobacco.

It is easy to see why the vaping devices have become so popular among adolescents. Juuls are tiny items that look like flash drives and can be recharged with a simple USB port, such as the ones found on laptops. The mist, or vapor, from a Juul is seemingly odorless and evaporates within seconds. The sweet and fruity flavors–including mango, fruit medley, and crème brûlée–make the vaping devices even more appealing to teenagers. Despite Juuls’ attractiveness to teens, teachers and parents were initially, and still remain, mostly oblivious to their common use.

It is difficult to determine all of the long-term effects vaping has, given that electronic cigarettes are a recent invention. Some of the FDA’s concerns about increased nicotine use are the risk of addiction and the potential harm to the developing adolescent brain. The FDA also found that the rise in e-cigarette use has been part of an overall increase in tobacco product consumption of 38 percent among high school students and 29 percent among middle school students. Even so, tobacco giant Marlboro reported that U.S. cigarette sales are falling faster than it had expected, having decreased by 4.5 percent in 2018, with an additional 3.5 to 5 percent decline expected this year. Altria, the owner of Marlboro, has invested $12.8 billion in Juul Labs Inc., and Altria’s CEO Howard Willard said at about the time of the investment that it would “support and even accelerate transition to noncombustible alternative products.”

Juul’s sales skyrocketed last year, to over $1 billion in revenue compared with the $200 million it earned in 2017. It sold more than 450 million refill pods in the last year alone, and dominated the e-cigarette market with a 75 percent market share. With this rapid expansion of nicotine products, does any hopeful news follow?

Keeping the problems with adolescent usage in mind, it is still important to note that Juul does present itself as a healthier alternative to cigarettes for adult smokers. According to a report by CNBC, cigarette smoking kills an estimated 480,000 adults per year in the U.S. alone, making it the leading cause of preventable death. The fact that cigarette sales are rapidly decreasing as e-cigarettes continue to increase seems to suggest that the vaping option is having this good effect. But it is coming at a massive cost to teenagers. Many researchers have argued that we cannot afford to curb adult smoking at the expense of addicting a new generation to nicotine. The cons may outweigh the pros, and it is up to FDA regulators or our elected officials to address this latest trend with sound policy.