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The Magnetic Epidemic: is the attraction of Juuls coming to an end?

News & Features | September 30, 2019

For those unfamiliar with what the drunken juuling scene resembles, consider a watering hole in the middle of the desert—a congregation from all parts of the land, uphill or downhill, Carm Stans or Dewick Stans. When one whips out the magical Juul, suddenly a great magnetic force sweeps over the partygoers. Despite not needing a hit during any other part of the day, suddenly an internal compulsion drives everyone to the source. Just what is it about this new-age cigarette—which most parents perceive to be a petite flash drive—that has enraptured the masses? 

If Donald Trump’s recently proposed federal ban on flavored e-cigarettes comes to fruition, fruit will not be on the lips of Tufts students. Instead the far harsher Virginia Tobacco, which is marketed by Juul.com for those who are “not [fans] of sweeter flavors” will soon be the only option on convenience store shelves. Is this change enough to discourage those gatherings of Juul fiends at a Saturday night celebration? Will the magnet suddenly lose its emanating beam? 

“#Bringbackmango,” a first-year Tufts student and former Juuler told the Observer. “Because of the loss of mango [Juul pods], no one is gonna start juuling now.” Do young people enjoy the sweeter flavors? Well, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 31 percent of survey respondents said the primary reason they Juul is because they “are available in flavors such as mint, candy, fruit, or chocolate.” 

In case you need a quick refresher, the vaping craze is not specific to Tufts. According to the CDC, e-cigarette usage increased 78 percent from 2017 to 2018. The CDC officially stated that the “rise in e-cigarette use during 2017 – 2018 is likely because of the recent popularity of e-cigarettes shaped like a USB flash drive, such as [Juul]; these products can be used discreetly, have a high nicotine content, and come in flavors that appeal to youths.” Russell Yip of the Tufts Daily put forth an investigative study last year exploring vaping on the Tufts campus, asking 243 students if they vaped before: 54.3 percent said yes

Juuling is not risk-free. The CDC outlined more than “450 possible cases of lung illness associated with using e-cigarettes.” Many Juul users have been in the dark about what exactly is in the pods they are smoking: in 2017, 63 percent of people were unaware the product contained nicotine. But with the research, narrative, and public image of the Juul brand starting to catch up to what is in the product, there is a question as to whether Juuls can continue to survive and in what settings it will continue to do so. 

“I have a lot of friends who say ‘I only Juul when I’m drunk,’” explained a Tufts sophomore who said she gave up juuling midway through her freshman year. “That gives them permission to do it because we all know the health risks. If someone has one, [even] I’ll hit it.”

Perhaps juuling is more about the sentiment of joining in with others. Maybe the act of hitting the Juul fills a void during an awkward conversation. Could the chemical balance of alcohol entice users to seek the famed “buzz” from hitting a Juul? 

Social dynamics also plays a large role. As archaic and cliché as it may sound, the phenomenon of peer pressure greatly contributes to the reason that teenagers start smoking in the first place. A Psychological Bulletin report published in 2017 found that teenagers who have friends who smoke are more than twice as likely to smoke than teenagers who do not. 

“I think [juuling] really depends on the group you’re with,” explained the sophomore. “I see not the gender in it, [but] I feel like I notice guys with Juuls more. But that might be because it’s a lot easier to ask a guy for a Juul in my position.” The observation that men may be more prone to juuling is not subjective. After all, “nearly three-quarters of those sickened were male, and two-thirds were ages 18 to 34,” the CDC has said.

But imagine if this culture didn’t exist at all anymore and the magnetic force field exploded, leaving a confused following forced to turn to other alternatives. What would be the ripple effects? What are some of the alternatives?

“Why don’t people just smoke weed, though?” wondered a first-year. “Get a cart. You can just get an oil pen.”

The first-year is referencing the growing usage of THC pens, made from waxes, oils, dabs, and other assortments—many of which are sold unregulated on underground markets in a similar fashion to most non-governmental marijuana. 

“People [are] more comfortable smoking [cigarettes] because of Juuls. I see people smoking [cigarettes] all the time…I could see other vapes popping up too,” said a sophomore.

Another student echoed this sentiment: “If somebody wants to smoke, [they] will smoke.”

It’s undeniable that as a result of Juuls, nicotine addictions are certainly up. And since the brain doesn’t fully develop until people turn 25, will the cravings they’ve already created lead to a perpetual hunt for short-term satisfaction over long-term health? “Adolescents don’t think they will get addicted to nicotine, but when they do want to stop, they find it’s very difficult,” says Yale neuroscientist Marina Picciotto, PhD. “The adolescent brain is more sensitive to rewards.”

Are young people to blame? Juul has repeatedly come under fire for “inadvertently” advertising and using social media to promote the brand to underage consumers. A Stanford study on tobacco advertising from last January highlighted how Juul’s “repeated assertion[s] that their product is meant for ‘adult smokers only’ has not been congruent with its marketing practices over its first three years.” 

It should not go unnoticed that this proposed ban would undoubtedly have an economic effect on a local level. No, not for bigwig CEOs already making millions at the expense of young people’s health, but everyday merchants legally selling e-cigarettes.

“If I make $1000 sales [per] day [from tobacco-related products], it might come down to $700 or $600,” a local shopkeeper in the Medford area stated, explaining the potential effects of the federal ban on business.

Merchants legally sell products to those who can buy. Profit-seeking companies, as nefarious as they are, are entitled to make products until deemed illegal. Who is responsible when the merchant no longer stocks a product that has made them so much money previously?

Perhaps the government should have intervened far earlier, before merchants could regularly rely on products that are inevitably going to be pulled from the market, and before the government could blindside merchants and ruin their business model.

Juuls created a spiraling cycle that made a few people a lot of money while crippling millions. “We’re worried about the sales but we’re worried about the health too,” the same shopkeeper said. “Health is the first concern for everybody…It will impact the business, [but] if it is for something good, it should be [done].”

Yes, the government is finally acknowledging that Juuls, in fact, are e-cigarettes, not colorful toys. Can you blame adolescents fooled by deceptive advertising and bubbly flavoring? Can you blame a merchant trying to capitalize on the growing trend? 

It’s easy to blame opportunist CEOs trying to net a quick buck, but let’s not pretend that this practice hasn’t occurred in the tobacco industry for hundreds of years. After all, the government has remained gleefully negligent to interject on behalf of victimized and ignorant consumers. Why are they suddenly deciding to care now? Why not in September of 2018 when the FDA warned of “kid-friendly” marketing for e-cigarettes? Trump’s comments appear more reactive than proactive—too little too late. With nicotine addictions on the rise, the damage may already have been done. 

Writer’s Note: The New York Times reported on September 24th that Massachusetts is planning to enact a four-month ban on all vaping products.