The New Addictive Juuling Trend Is Damaging Younger Generations
In a blink, millions of young people started smoking a trendy e-cigarette and became addicted to a powerful drug. It’s time for the damage to be undone.
In the summer of 2015, a newfangled vaping product came on the market. The Juul device looked unlike any other electronic cigarette and delivered a far more powerful punch—5 percent nicotine, the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes, while other e-cigarettes had only 1 or 2 percent. Another big draw: It came in fun flavors such as mango and mint. JUULing could be as dangerous as smoking a pack a day.
Juul’s initial marketing campaign, called Vaporized, introduced the product with glitzy parties, ads, and social media posts featuring young women in midriff-baring tops holding the sleek metal device. Pop-up “Juul Bars” at concerts offered free samples. A bright billboard display loomed over Times Square. The company hired consultants to identify social media influencers to promote Juul with hashtags like #juul and #vaporized on posts that showed images of themselves or other young people doing tricks with the device.
Bailey Legacki was one of the high school students drawn in by the campaign. She began using Juul as a 15-year-old in South Florida during the 2015–16 school year. “It was everywhere,” she recalls. “Everyone had one.” Legacki says she was influenced by her friends but also by the ubiquitous ads and posts on Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. This is why even smart teens do dumb things—and how to keep them safe.
“They were young people, and it looked like they were having fun,” she explains. “Or it would just be the device that was shown, but not really explaining anything about it, just, ‘Try this.’”
She says she did not realize there was nicotine in the pods, the cartridges that contain the flavored liquid you “smoke” with Juul’s battery-operated pipe. In the early days, Juul’s packaging mentioned nicotine only in tiny type in the ingredients list and did not contain the warning labels it does now.
“If I knew it had nicotine at all, I wouldn’t have done it,” Legacki says. “Now I’m so reliant on something I had no intention of doing. I knew what cigarettes do. This Juul was new, and nobody knew what the Juul did.” She plans to sue Juul.
From 2017 to 2019, when Juul’s growth became astronomical, the percentage of high schoolers who vaped more than doubled in the United States, according to research at Johns Hopkins University. The 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey funded by the FDA and CDC found that flavored e‑cigarettes were one major reason why, and studies show that kids whose first exposure to nicotine was a flavored e-cigarette were more likely to become hooked on any form of smoking than those whose first exposure was a tobacco cigarette. More than five million young Americans—one in four high school students and one in ten middle schoolers—now vape, the agencies said in a joint report last summer.
A sampling of high school students’ tweets from Juul’s first 18 months of sales showed that “juuling” quickly became a fad:
“petition to make our school mascot a juul”
“horizon highschool, where every1 is juuling in the bathroom”
“HAPPY 16th BIRTHDAY, LEXI T!!! I hope ur day is filled with juuling & just having the best day ever!”
What the tweets didn’t capture: Nicotine is a highly addictive drug that impedes the developing brain, and many teens have struggled to quit.
The story of Juul began more than a decade ago when two smokers, James Monsees and Adam Bowen, became friends over cigarette breaks as graduate students in design at Stanford University. During those chats, they came up with an idea for their thesis, a design for an e-cigarette that would give smokers the nicotine they craved but without the cancer-causing substances that come from burning tobacco. They called it Ploom, and in 2007, they started a company by the same name.
Monsees and Bowen’s first product, the Ploom Model One Vaporizer, was shaped like an oversize pen. After a couple of years, it became clear that the device wasn’t catching on. The biggest complaint? Not enough nicotine.
Kurt Sonderegger, who was Ploom’s head of marketing, would tape two of the devices together to try to get a satisfying hit, he says, but “I still needed to go out and smoke a cigarette.”
In early 2015, after selling the Ploom brand to a Japanese cigarette company, the company took on a new name, Pax Labs. Pax quickly discovered a way to substantially increase the nicotine levels in a new product, named Juul.
Scott Dunlap, the chief marketing officer at the time, saw the immense promise. “When I first tried the Juul prototype, the nicotine hit was immediate, within seconds. No e-cig had ever come close to this,” he says. “The design was also unique—the shape, the glowing light, the crackling sound, the thick vapor. It was a multisensory experience.”
In addition to smokers looking for the nicotine high without the cancer risk, the company had been eyeing another potential market: younger people who were occasional smokers and might be drawn to a luxe, smartly designed tech product that they could take out with them on a Saturday night.
And it worked: Juul’s remarkable rise and domination of the e-cigarette business came after it began targeting younger consumers, a group with historically low smoking rates, in a furious effort to reward investors and capture market share before the government tightened regulations on vaping.
But even as vaping soared among nonsmokers and Juul became a high school craze, the company’s executives stood firm in their assertion that Juul’s mission has always been to give adult smokers a safer alternative to cigarettes, which play a role in the deaths of 480,000 people in the United States each year.
“We never wanted any non-nicotine user and certainly nobody underage to ever use Juul products,” Monsees testified at a congressional hearing last July.
But according to interviews with former executives, employees, and investors, along with reviews of legal filings and social media archives, the company was never just about helping adult smokers. In 2015, just before the product’s debut, Ari Atkins, an engineer who had worked on the team developing the Juul, told theverge.com, “We don’t think a lot about addiction here because we’re not trying to design a cessation product at all.”
As recently as 2017, with mounting evidence that high school students were flocking to its devices and flavored nicotine pods, the company, which became Juul Labs after splitting from Pax, refused to sign a pledge not to market to teenagers as part of a lawsuit settlement. A nonprofit in California, the Center for Environmental Health, had tested e-cigarettes and nicotine liquids made by Juul and more than a dozen other companies and found levels of formaldehyde, a carcinogen created when e-cigarettes containing certain chemicals are heated, that exceeded the California limit. The organization had sued the manufacturers to force them to lower formaldehyde levels and to add a warning label noting the presence of a cancer-causing ingredient.
But in settling the cases, the environmental group saw an opportunity to do more. “We wanted to go beyond just the cancer warning,” its lawyer, Mark Todzo, says. “At the time, there were reports coming out about the teen vaping rates that were just starting to be reported on.”
Todzo says the group added a provision to the settlement requiring the e-cigarette companies to agree not to market to youths. Documents show that it was signed by other companies but not by Juul. Instead, the company opted to pay an additional penalty, based on its sales for 2015—just $2,500.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2018 when the FDA required it to do so, that the company put a nicotine warning label on its packaging. Juul finally signed the pledge in late 2019.
Now the company is facing an ever-growing pile of lawsuits from parents, school districts, counties, and states. In addition to the FDA, the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. attorney’s office in Northern California, and more than three dozen states are investigating the company.
Juul is still waiting for federal health officials to completely clear its devices and nicotine pods from the mysterious vaping-related illness that emerged last summer, making more than 2,800 people seriously ill and killing 68 others to date. The CDC said that the likely culprit is vaping liquids containing vitamin E acetate and THC (the chief psychoactive chemical in marijuana), which Juul does not sell. But it cautioned that health investigators had not exonerated nicotine products.
Meanwhile, the FDA must decide whether Juul products are appropriate for the protection of public health. The agency has undertaken a regulatory review, weighing the number of people likely to become addicted to nicotine via Juul against the number who might use it to quit smoking combustible cigarettes and assessing the products’ safety.
It likely won’t help Juul’s case that it is now partly owned by Altria, maker of Marlboro cigarettes. In December 2018, the tobacco giant announced it would pay $12.8 billion in cash for a 35 percent stake in Juul. Under the terms of the deal, Altria said it would use its vast distribution channels to sell Juul products.
Some Juul employees were unsettled by the fact that they were now in business with Big Tobacco. And FDA regulators? They were irate, no longer buying that Juul had a virtuous health mission. According to two former FDA commissioners—David Kessler, who served in the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations, and Scott Gottlieb, who ran the agency for President Donald Trump for a time—the agency is likely to make it very challenging for Juul to obtain the necessary clearance to stay on the market.
Even in the face of mounting investigations, Juul Labs has insisted that it never marketed or knowingly sold its trendy e-cigarettes and flavored nicotine pods to teenagers.
Still, the company has taken steps to keep its products away from underage smokers, including stopping sales of most of its flavors; halting all broadcast, print, and digital advertising; and offering $100 million in incentives for retailers to adopt a new electronic age-verification system intended to curb illegal sales to minors. Late last year, Juul announced that it would discontinue its mint flavor, which a new study showed had become its most popular among teens.
But many kids, now hooked, have simply moved on to another type of e-cigarette, single-use vape pens such as Puff Bar and blu. Just like Juul, they are illegal for minors, but young smokers manage to get ahold of them anyway.
When asked what happens if she doesn’t vape, one teen told the New York Times, “I get all shaky.”
Next, here are 12 things that happen to your body when you stop vaping.