THE TIMES
28 JULY 2018

JUUL: THE HIGHLY ADDICTIVE VAPE PEN TAKING OVER AMERICAN SCHOOLS

The ‘iPhone of e-cigarettes’ has launched in the UK.

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Parents of teens, brace yourselves. A craze of viral proportions is sweeping the corridors and bathrooms of private high schools across America — and it’s about to reach us. “It” refers to the Juul, a state-of-the-art vape pen that looks like a USB drive, can be charged on your computer, and is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Having thus far only been available in America, it has just launched in the UK, “with the mission”, so the carefully worded press release goes, “to improve the lives of the UK’s 7.4m adult smokers”. Problem is, if the US is anything to go by, Juuling (oh yes, it’s a bona fide verb) has been hijacked by the Snapchat generation.

 

Also known as the iPhone of e-cigarettes, or the Apple of the vape space, the Juul, produced by Juul Labs, was launched in 2015 by James Monsees and Adam Bowen, two Stanford graduates and ex-smokers intent on disrupting Big Tobacco. Now, thanks in no small part to underage users promoting it for free on Snapchat, Reddit, Instagram and YouTube (much to the frustration of Juul Labs itself), the company enjoys a whopping 68% share of the $2.3bn US e-cigarette market. As Dr Ramakanth Kavuluru, from the University of Kentucky, whose team recently published a report on the link between social media and underage Juul users, observed: “You know it’s a phenomenon when people start dressing up as it for Halloween.”

The first electronic cigarette or vape pen — a battery-powered device that vaporises rather than burns plant substances such as tobacco to simulate the sensation of smoking — was invented by a Chinese man called Hon Lik in 2003, but the devices weren’t launched in this country until five years later, a year after the landmark 2007 ban on public smoking. Since then, vaping — the main advantage of which is that it does not contain tar or carbon monoxide, the two ingredients linked to cancer — has become the fastest-growing industry in the UK, with sales of vaping products reaching £1bn.

 

But what is the Juul’s particular appeal to gen-Zers? Easy. No icky cigarette smell, minimal vapour trail and its innocent, almost dweeby appearance (it looks like it should have important homework on it) all contribute to making it laughably easy to cop hits right through class. Not just class, though: the back of your parents’ car, on a plane, at the movies, at the dinner table — there is no place it is impossible to Juul. (Make a fist as if about to cough, exhale into bra or backpack; stick it in a turtleneck and pretend you are checking to see if you put deodorant on; and so forth.) Besides, isn’t that what life is all about if you’re a teenager — having the latest gadget? In order to buy the product legally, you have to be over 21 in the US and over 18 in the UK. The website even carries a notice that it is illegal to resell to minors, yet teens are having no problem getting hold of them. (A starter kit containing a device and four pods costs £30 on the Juul website.) Not teens with means, anyway.

 

“Every kid on the Upper East Side knows of a deli that will sell the pods for a higher price with no ID,” confides a 16-year-old pupil at one of Manhattan’s toniest prep schools. Many teens deal pods for extra pocket money, mostly in school bathrooms, of course. As one of the thousands, if not millions, of #juul memes goes: “Why are there even toilets in here any more?”

Although there is no official merchandise (just an app in the works), you can buy T-shirts and baseball caps based on the viral social-media campaign #doit4juul. There’s even a fidget spinner out there designed specifically to clip onto your Juul. (Customisation via nail polish, burning it gold with a lighter, cladding it in a brightly coloured wrap or a skin — none of which have anything to do with Juul Labs itself — is a huge part of the gen-Z appeal.)

 

Juul Labs vigorously insists its product is marketed specifically at grown-ups wanting to quit cigarettes. On the website it says: “We are dedicated to helping adults switch off cigarettes. We are also incredibly focused on combating underage use.” Yet its flavours — among them Mango, Royal Crème, Apple Orchard and Glacier Mint — inevitably appeal to teens. According to my New York mole, boys tend to go for Virginia Tobacco (Golden Tobacco in the UK), while girls prefer the mint.

 

In upmarket holiday spots such as Mykonos and Ibiza, Juul sightings are common, especially among privileged gen-Zers. “They’re what Kiini bikinis were two years ago,” says one Mykonos regular, who has observed teens at the beach giving each other the nod of recognition. Part of the Juul’s USP is the simplicity of the design, as unlike old-school e-cigarettes there’s no finickety changing of coils or wicks or pouring of liquid. Instead there’s just two components — the heating device or stick, and the replaceable Juulpod, a plastic cartridge filled with the e-juice. (Note to parents: it is almost impossible to “hack” a pod and fill it with cannabis or any other illegal drug.)

 

There’s also its sweet spot of a hit: thanks to a patented nicotine salt solution, similar to what is found naturally in the tobacco leaf, more nicotine can be dispensed (59mg/ml as opposed to between 6mg/ml and 30mg/ml in an old-school e-cigarette, although interestingly the UK pods have less than half the nicotine content, at 20mg/ml), but without the harshness. Users also rave about the unique “crackle” — a slight popping sensation reminiscent of the sound of milk being poured onto a bowl of Rice Krispies. What many of them do not realise, though, is that a single US pod — easy to get through in a day with about 200 puffs — contains roughly the same amount of nicotine as a whole pack of cigarettes.

 

As even the most vocal opponents of Juul, including the US senators Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren, would have to concede, e-cigarettes are not as harmful as normal cigarettes. They do not contain tar; they do not emit secondhand smoke; they are not responsible for the more than 480,000 deaths per year in the US (the equivalent of one in five deaths annually or 1,300 deaths every day) that normal cigarettes are. As Ashley Gould, Juul chief adminstrative officer, in London for the launch, says: “We know, too, it’s very, very hard to quit smoking cigarettes. What we’ve seen in the US, and hope to see here, is that smokers who use our products are able to stop using combustible products. We’re focused on helping adults to find a satisfying alternative and are working on showing the long-term benefits through our clinical work.”

 

But what of the effect of the constant onslaught of nicotine (it is known to increase blood pressure and heart rate) on a developing brain? As Dr Jonathan Winickoff, a professor at Harvard Medical School, told The New Yorker magazine earlier this year: “If you were to design your ideal nicotine-delivery service to addict large numbers of American kids, you’d invent Juul. It’s absolutely unconscionable. The earlier these companies introduce the product to the developing brain, the better the chance they have a lifelong user.”

 

Parents are, of course, worried. “I don’t think anyone realises what a shitstorm it is and how it’s going to make cigarettes look like nothing by comparison,” says Lucy, a Manhattan-based fashion entrepreneur and mother of two. “Here they are, tap-tap-tapping away at their phones, puff-puff-puffing away at their Juuls, overstimulated from morning to night. There’s no such thing as a Juul break, because you can do it 24/7.”

 

As Juul announces it will double its output to 40m pods per month, plus a recent launch in Israel and plans to drop in Singapore and France before the end of the year, health regulators are taking a stand. The FDA has been slow to come down on e-cigarettes, but earlier this year it announced a blitz on retailers selling Juuls to minors and a pledge to take steps to examine the appeal to youths.

 

Juul Labs itself has promised to help with the fight. It has announced the launch of a new pod with only 3% nicotine as opposed to the current 5%, and pledged $30m over the next three years to address minors’ usage. “We are committed to deterring young people, as well as adults who do not currently smoke, from using our products,” said Kevin Burns, Juul CEO, in a statement in April. “We cannot be more emphatic on this point: no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try Juul.” But not to terribly much avail. Already copycats are out there, among them a brand called Kandypens, whose 120k Instagram account teems with pictures of pretty young women in thongs. Meanwhile, my 16-year-old son has spotted a way to buy Juul-compatible pods in the UK.

 

Wednesday Martin, a cultural anthropologist, author of Primates of Park Avenue and Manhattan-dwelling mother of two boys, sums it up. “Juul, for me, hooks into the tribalism of teen culture. It plays to their desire to do the same thing while being individuals — ‘Which flavour do you like?’, that kind of thing. The Juul promises that transgression can be fun, happy and innocent, but at the same time it is turning kids into adults on a daily basis, hardwiring adolescents’ brains into becoming addicts.”