Your latest party companion  could be more destructive than you think.

Illustrations by Michael Marte.

A thin, pale wisp of smoke escapes from Jason Fabiano’s slightly parted lips after he takes a hit of his JUUL, a sleek gray e-cigarette that strongly resembles a harmless flash drive.

Fabiano, a fifth-year journalism major from Pembroke Pines, started smoking cigarettes when he was around 16 years old to cope with the stress of working on his high school’s TV production program, which was nationally known. He continued smoking until around his sophomore year of college at the University of Florida, when he tried JUULing.

JUULs are a type of e-cigarette that were developed in 2015 by a company called PAX Labs, which then broke off two years later and became JUUL Labs. Initially, they were thought to be safer than smoking cigarettes because the main mechanism — a cartridge full of oil that heats to create a vapor when you inhale — doesn’t expose users to the carcinogenic byproducts of combustion like cigarettes do. Many people, like Fabiano, started using e-cigarettes as a way to stop smoking, but they won’t exactly kick your nicotine addiction. One JUUL pod is equal to about a pack of cigarettes.

Many people — especially teenagers, who are more likely to try flavored e-cigarettes and less likely to think of them as harmful — don’t even realize they are addicted. Some even endearingly refer to themselves as “JUUL fiends” and happily pass their JUULs around at parties.

The increased use among teenagers is at the center of how JUULs became a staple of modern life, a source of hysteria for Good Morning America and the subject of legitimate public health debate. With flavors like mint, mango and crème brûlée, JUUL Labs is purposefully trying to appeal to young people, critics say, even though the company claims it only targets adults in its marketing.

Experts with Stanford University’s Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising maintain that the company’s campaigns have been “patently youth-oriented,” like a 2015 full-page ad in Vice magazine featuring a young white model wearing black skinny jeans, a white crop top and a gray varsity jacket, playfully blowing smoke. It wasn’t until June 2018 that the company’s advertisements featured anyone who was over 35 or had actually used JUULS to quit smoking.

In September 2018, the Food and Drug Administration announced the largest coordinated enforcement effort in their history to address the epidemic of youth e-cigarette use. More than 1,300 warning letters and fines were issued to retailers who had sold JUULs and other e-cigarettes illegally to minors across the country. JUUL Labs CEO Kevin Burns responded in kind, stating that the company is “committed to preventing underage use … we want to engage with FDA, lawmakers, public health advocates and others to keep JUUL out of the hands of young people.” The company also shut down its Facebook and Instagram pages.

“It’s something that’s improved the quality of my life, but I could also see how it would decrease the quality of someone’s life,” Fabiano said. “There are literally teenagers out there who have never smoked a cigarette getting unnecessary nicotine addictions because it is so discreet and convenient.”

But to be so freely in the market, they’re a terrible opportunity,” Papke said. “The people producing those things are the people who are producing tobacco and promoting general addiction. Nicotine is one of the most insidious addictions that we have out there.”

Theoretically, JUULs could have a therapeutic purpose, said Roger Papke, a UF professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics and a nicotine specialist. If JUUL e-cigarettes were a prescription item that was proven to help stop a person smoking and were given only to people who were actually addicted to cigarettes, then they might be effective.

“But to be so freely in the market, they’re a terrible opportunity,” Papke said. “The people producing those things are the people who are producing tobacco and promoting general addiction. Nicotine is one of the most insidious addictions that we have out there.”

Papke is unsure if there are any good studies that show that JUULs are actually beneficial for people who are cigarette smokers, mainly because e-cigarettes are too new for research to be able to conclusively determine their true health liability. E-cigarettes have been around for about 15 years, and it will take at least 20 years of regular use for potential chronic health problems to appear.

Short-term data, however, indicates that it is much more likely for a naïve user to pick up JUULs than a traditional cigarette, which suggests that JUULs are encouraging usage among adolescents. Papke said this could possibly lead to using cigarettes or other tobacco products.

“Nicotine basically hijacks the natural reward system in the brain in a very subtle way,” Papke said. “It was tolerated in our society for hundreds of years because the overt effects are not intoxicating and people don’t act, in general, dangerously when they are under the influence of nicotine like they do with alcohol or other drugs.”

Jackie Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Alachua County Public School System, said Alachua County public schools don’t draw distinctions between students who are caught with e-cigarettes or other tobacco-related products. She said the school system has no statistics available as of now about how much of an issue e-cigarettes and vaping have become, but one thing is for sure: vaping and e-cigarettes are not allowed in schools.

“We knew years ago this was going to be an issue,” Johnson said. “As soon as they [vapes and e-cigarettes] started showing up, we included that in our policies.”

JUULs are too new of an item for research to be able to conclusively determine their true health liability, but Papke said it seems that people are going to be less likely to get cancer from JUULs as opposed to traditional combustible cigarettes. However, he stresses that they should never use them in the first place. “It’s simply a pathway to an addiction which is going to take your money and control your life,” he said. 

Fabiano said that when it comes down to it, vaping is like choosing the lesser of two evils.

“Smoking cigarettes for you is life certified terrible,” Fabiano said. “Whereas vaping is kind of like the jury is out. We don’t know yet.” •