Nicotine

Claire* picked up a Juul for the first time at the beginning of her sophomore year. She took one hit in the school bathroom for fun, and moved on. As the month went on, Claire ended up in more social situations where she had easy access to a Juul. Eventually, she found herself desperately craving the buzzing sensation nicotine gave her. By October of her sophomore year, she had her own, and by the end of the year, she was addicted.

“I realized I was addicted because every morning I would get up and hit my Juul,” Claire said. “I would hit it every other class. There was no amount of time too small for me to hit it. When I ran out of pods all I could think about was where I was going to get my next pack.”

Claire is conforming to a recent trend in high school students. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the number of high school students that are addicted to e-cigarettes has grown 900 percent in recent years. At KHS, 25 (92/365) percent of students have used an e-nicotine delivery system, and 10 (33/336) percent of students use one regularly. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its crackdown on Juul and other e-cigarette companies Sept. 12, giving them 60 days to prove they can keep their products away from minors. For Juul and other e-cigarette companies, not meeting these demands may result in having to change their advertising practices, stopping shipments to retailers selling to minors and removing flavored e-cigarette products from the market.

For customers like Claire, the loss of flavored products is a big deal. The flavors play a large role in her enjoyment of vaping. Critics argue the flavors are what turned minors onto the product in the first place. The FDA does not regulate e-cigarette products, which, according to Kelly Prunty, executive director of local drug-combating company Addiction is Real, allows these companies to advertise their products as healthier than they actually are.

“When e-cigarettes were created they were called ENDS,” Aly Stambauch, prevention educator with drug-combating organization NCADA, said. “That stands for electronic nicotine delivery system. Regardless of whether you’re using a cigarette or a Juul, it’s just another way to get nicotine into your system.”

Various organizations throughout the country have been working toward educating the public on drugs and have incorporated warnings about Juul and other e-cigarettes into their curriculum. Addiction is Real offers presentations and resources to schools and communities looking to combat the drug problem.

“Because [Juul] was advertised as safer than cigarettes, most teenagers think it’s harmless, and that’s certainly not the case,” Prunty said. “It has caught on as an epidemic, and it’s going to get a ton of teenagers addicted to nicotine.”

The FDA agrees with Prunty. It distributed more than 1,300 warning letters and fines to retailers who illegally sold Juul and other e-cigarette products to minors, making this the largest coordinated enforcement effort in the organization’s history.

“I have noticed Juul is [intensely] advertising by giving huge discounts on their starter packs, dropping the price to $20 instead of $60,” Prunty said. “They’re making it easy and affordable for a kid to start [vaping.]”

Sixty-six (226/343) percent of KHS students have also noticed e-cigarette advertisement strategies and believe the companies are advertising to minors. The FDA has noticed as well and launched an investigation specifically into the most popular brand of e-cigarette, Juul. After the twofold blow, Juul Labs said it supported the effort to curb minors from using e-cigarettes and stated it supports bills at the state-level proposing moving the legal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21.

Juul Labs will work proactively with FDA in response to its request,”  Kevin Burns, CEO of Juul Labs, said in a public statement. “We are committed to preventing underage use of our product, and we want to be part of the solution in keeping e-cigarettes out of the hands of young people.”

Vapor has been found to contain carcinogens such as formaldehyde and nitrosamines. Although the levels of toxicity in vape have been proven to be lower than those in cigarettes, the levels of hazardous materials have been found to be “comparable or higher than those found in conventional cigarettes.”

“I thought I was fine,” Claire said. “I told myself, ‘Half of high schoolers are addicted [to vaping.] It’s fine.’ Then I thought, ‘At this rate I’m gonna need a lung replacement by 40.’ I’ve tried to quit three times, and it hasn’t worked, but this time it will.”

What’s being done: 

In addition to their investigation and new regulation enforcement, the FDA has expanded “The Real Cost,” its  first tobacco prevention campaign. The expansion targets 10.7 million at-risk teens through social media platforms and nationwide in-school ads. “The Real Cost” has earned two Effie awards and one Shorty, both are highly-coveted and given to campaigns that have outstanding market impact and online impact.

*Name changed for anonymity