By John Kalil and Shreekar Pandey, Staff Writers
// It’s 11:00 a.m. on Monday morning. An Acalanes student sits in the quad during brunch with seemingly nothing to do before his next class. Many students of all grades day after day follow the common course of an emerging ritual. Whether alone or with a friend or a large group, students walk to the bathroom and pull a thin, steel gray device that looks similar to a USB flash drive from their bags.
The student puts one end up to his lips and sucks in, then keeps his mouth closed, trapping the nicotine-filled vapor inside of his mouth and throat. A LED fixture close to the mouthpiece on the device illuminates with vibrant colors. He passes the device to another student, who repeats the process. A few minutes later, they exit the bathroom for their next class without leaving a trace of the illegal activities that have just occurred.
The inconspicuous yet increasingly ubiquitous device is a JUUL, introduced in June of 2015 by a team of electronic cigarette developers at JUUL Labs. JUULs are one of the multiple types of battery-operated electronic cigarettes that heat up liquids containing nicotine and other chemicals into vapor, which are then inhaled. JUULs, specifically, are plugged into computers or wall outlets to charge, much in the same way that phones are connected.
While JUUL is a specific brand name, the term “juuling” has become a generic term for using any of a variety of nicotine delivery devices, including Phix Vapes and Suorin Airs. Marketed as the key to the elimination of combustible cigarettes by offering an alternative for adult smokers, the JUUL has also gained enormous popularity amongst an unintended demographic: high schoolers.
With the device’s compact design, easy recharge capability, and tendency to leave little to no scent on the smoker, it’s easy to see why the JUUL has become the mascot of a new generation of teen smokers. Furthermore, JUUL usage at school can be quickly concealable as its visible effects are often not obvious. Unlike alcohol or marijuana, most electronic nicotine-delivery devices such as JUULs don’t lead to a lasting high. Some JUUL users describe the experience as a “head rush” that lasts only a few minutes.
“Your head is just in another place. Your thoughts are kind of gone. You’re just chillin’. It’s very, very relaxing,” said Student 1, who admitted to using a JUUL in the Acalanes bathrooms on numerous occasions. Blueprint is withholding his name due to the illegality of his actions. “It lasts at most five minutes, so that’s why it’s so convenient to use at school. You can use it at break, in the bathroom during class, any little time period.”
When asked why students choose to not only use a JUUL, but to use one at school, Student 1 explained that many students partake in juuling to momentarily escape what they believe to be the monotonous realities of school.
“They just would rather have something to do than sit in a classroom for an hour and a half and just be bored,” he said. “People rely on it as a break from school because they’re here for a long time and they’d rather just get away from it for a quick little second. It’s not something that’s needed, but it helps get you through the day.”
At Acalanes, students convene in the restrooms during brunch, lunch, and passing periods to juul, while others even daringly smoke in class without the teacher noticing.
“The bathrooms are like the new hang out spots at school because everyone has a JUUL or something similar like a Phix or a Suorin,” Student 2 said, also admitting to frequently juuling in the bathroom. “Some kids are discreet about it, but sometimes you walk in and see people blowing O’s in front of the bathroom mirror.”
As the culture of juuling on campus is in its relatively early stages, administrators are still identifying adequate means of combating the issue, starting with an increase in campus supervision.
“At brunch and lunch we have staff members assigned to different locations and other staff that are floating the campus walking around. A handful of staff members, like [Acalanes Campus Supervisor] Mac D, for example, are instructed to get into bathrooms while monitoring the campus,” Acalanes Principal Travis Bell said.
Students could be subject to a variety of punishments if they were to be caught in the act.
“Consequences can be anywhere from a suspension if it was a serious infraction and an unwillingness to cooperate, to a referral, to a brief intervention program in which students would engage in some counselling sessions,” Bell said.
While the possession and use of electronic cigarettes is forbidden on campus, most students who juul at school are unencumbered by this reality and do not practice discretion despite the potential consequences. Most view the bathrooms as a safe haven for their illegal activities and are unconcerned with the possibility of being caught.
“As a freshman it was something I used to worry about, but now that I’ve been here for two years I’ve noticed that teachers don’t often go into the bathrooms. They’ll walk in occasionally but they don’t ever catch anything. It’s not something that I’m really freaking out about,” Student 1 said.
The culture of juuling and smoking with other nicotine-delivery devices exists among high schoolers beyond the Acalanes community as well.
According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), consistent e-cigarette use among high schoolers rose from 1.5 percent to 16.0 percent from 2011 to 2015, which, if true at Acalanes, would amount to around 215 students, according to Blueprint’s estimates. The increase signals a growing teen interest in electronic nicotine delivery systems. Hundreds of e-cigarette options crowd the market, ranging from names like Halo E-Cigs to Mig Vapor to V2 E-Cigarettes.
It is the JUUL, however, that has flooded social media and pop culture; as of late 2017, the company was producing over 20 million products a month, according to a CNBC report.
At $34.99 per device and $15.99 per four-pack of pods, the JUUL is by no means the most affordable of the three teen-popular smoking devices, compared to $19.99 Suorin starter pack and the $34.95 Phix starter pack.
The explosion of these e-cigarettes’ popularity among teens points to a counterintuitive trend—while JUUL Labs wants to get adult smokers off nicotine, its products are now becoming a gateway for teens to potentially be introduced to more smoking products. In fact, according to a National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) study, 30.7 percent of e-cig users start smoking cigarettes, cigars, or hookahs within six months.
“Our mission is to get as many adult smokers to stop using combustible cigarettes and start using JUUL and ideally eventually they would quit smoking altogether,” Dr. Julie Henderson, Director of Education and Youth Prevention at JUUL Labs, told Blueprint. “That said, we learned that students are using it–underage people, under the age of 21, even under the age of 18–which is a grave concern to us.”
Henderson explained to Blueprint that her position was created by JUUL less than two months ago as a result of the company’s growing worry over underage usage of its products. She mainly works with schools and other youth programs to educate teens and young adults about the health risks of using any sort of nicotine product.
“We know that people have continued to smoke even though they’ve had the science since 1950 about the impacts of cigarette smoke on your lungs. So people are going to make those choices,” Henderson said. “The thing is, we want them to have all the information available to them in order to make better-informed choices.”
Contrary to the growing concern that student JUUL users may turn to combustible cigarettes, many Acalanes students, ironically enough, are vehemently opposed to the use of traditional cigarettes, the vice which prompted the invention of the JUUL.
“Most people that use JUULs despise cigarettes. Like they’ve never been brought back after they were shunned. JUULs don’t have as bad of a rep as cigarettes do,” Student 1 said.
Another one of Henderson’s responsibilities is to educate youth about the legality of the JUUL and other e-cigarettes. The laws are relatively clear-cut: the sale of electronic cigarette products to anyone under the age of 21 is illegal in California, which is stricter than FDA requirements.
As of 2016, the FDA, citing the fact that “tobacco use is the single largest preventable cause of disease and death in the United States,” expanded the definition of a “tobacco product” to include not only cigarettes but also e-cigs, cigars, pipes, and hookahs, and also banned the sale of these products to anyone under the age of 18 in the United States. This allows the FDA to regulate all the included tobacco products and require that they are all clearly labeled with health warnings.
But despite public service announcements, emerging health concerns, and changing laws, things don’t appear to be sinking in for Acalanes JUUL users, who often illegally purchase their products. Less than a month ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics publicly encouraged parents to become more familiar with the appearances and contents of e-cigarettes because of the products’ growing popularity, as well as their highly-addictive potential among developing brains. But a flurry of misinformation, much of which is perpetuated through social media and digital interactions, has left many students unclear about the health risks of e-cigarettes.
“Yeah, it’s supposed to get you off cigarettes. It’s not healthy of course. But it’s an alternate that’s better,” Student 1 said. “It is better for you.”
His insistence that JUULs are better than cigarettes is a popular belief among student JUUL or other e-cigarette users.
However, according to Dr. James Pankow, a professor of chemistry and a researcher at Portland State University who published the study “Benzene formation in electronic cigarettes” in the medical journal PLOS One, it is still impossible to definitively say whether JUULs and other similar e-cigarettes are better or just as harmful as regular combustible cigarettes.
“Whenever people say that e-cigarettes are not as bad for you as tobacco, that’s speculation. It may be true, but it’s going to take having e-cigarettes being used for 30 or 40 years before we can really say what the relative risk is,” Pankow said.
Part of this confusion of information stems from the difference between JUUL’s delivery system as compared to traditional cigarettes. The actual liquid substance being vaporized and then inhaled is stored in a JUULpod, which is bought in bundles and replaced whenever they run out. The pods are easily replaceable, as the user can simply remove an empty one and attach a full one in mere seconds.
According to the JUUL website, one JUULpod is approximately equivalent to one pack of cigarettes or 200 puffs. By percentage, that breaks down into 5 percent of each JUULpod is nicotine. Some other e-cig devices, meanwhile, are designed to be manually refilled by the user, who can choose which liquids to add and thus control the amount of nicotine.
Another source of confusion is the complex composition of e-cigarette liquids. The juices in a JUUL, for example, contain nicotine, benzoic acid, glycerol, propylene glycol, flavorings, and oils. Many medical professionals disagree on whether JUULs are less or just as harmful as cigarettes—some cite the well-documented concentration of carcinogens in traditional combustible cigarettes as a reason to switch to JUULs. Meanwhile, others argue that the relatively new JUUL has had little to no research conducted surrounding its health effects and should thus be used cautiously. The propylene glycol in JUULs, for example, is very concerning to some doctors, as it is the same chemical as antifreeze.
A possible explanation for the popularity of JUULs among teens has to do with the chemical composition of the liquid found in the pods. According to Pankow, benzoic acid—an acid—reacts with nicotine—a base—to do something very interesting to the experience of a juuler.
“If you put benzoic acid into the e-liquid at about the same levels as the nicotine, there would be enough benzoic acid to react with the nicotine and therefore be much less harsh on inhalation,” Pankow told Blueprint.
In other words, the benzoic acid found in JUULs helps to make the vapor and overall experience of juuling more palatable, which in turn eases the transition for those starting.
“It doesn’t taste as bad and yet it’ll still deliver nicotine because all those droplets will still deposit in your lungs, to deliver nicotine and be addictive,” Pankow said.
Many of the Acalanes students who use JUULs confess to not knowing the contents of the product’s pods.
“I know it’s nothing good. It’s just a bunch of weird harmful chemicals and flavoring—I have no clue what those chemicals are. I feel like they aren’t any chemicals that I’d know,” said Student 3, another Acalanes student who juuls and whose name Blueprint is also withholding due to the illegality of her actions.
Much of the confusion surrounding JUUL and other e-cig health facts can also be attributed to the illicit sales of these products. Despite age restrictions, many Acalanes students have no trouble acquiring the device. Regardless of the legal consequences, students claim that many stores, including Big Al’s Smoke and Gifts in Berkeley, sometimes knowingly sell these devices to minors. Meanwhile, other students can acquire the device from fellow students or older siblings.
“If you look old enough, they don’t card you and you can just go in and buy a pack for the normal price,” Student 1 said regarding local smoke shops that sell JUULs and other nicotine products. “But at Acalanes some people will charge for more. Upperclassmen will resell them for like $5 more than the wholesale price.”
The JUUL device itself costs $35, which is certainly not cheap, especially if purchased through an upperclassman reseller. However, once that initial cost is incurred, the cost per pod at $4 is cheaper than an equivalent pack of cigarettes, which, because of California’s taxes on tobacco, usually range in price north of $6.
Pod flavors include Mango, Cool Mint, Virginia Tobacco, Cool Cucumber, Classic Menthol, Fruit Medley, Creme Brulee, and Classic Tobacco, all proclaimed to satisfy the varying interests of smokers over the age of 21.
“The people who created JUUL discovered that one of the ways you could entice smokers to switch to JUULs was to create different flavors,” Henderson said.
However, the variety of flavors JUUL provides has also appealed to underage students and captivates their attention.
“Everyone has their favorite kind of pods and if you try one it makes you want to try them all,” Student 2 said. “The variety of pods isn’t what keeps people vaping, but it turns things into an industry. It gives kids another reason to stay interested.”
Furthermore, a “sharing” culture on the Acalanes campus perpetuates the use of nicotine delivery systems.
“If you ask for it, people are willing to share,” Student 1 said. He explained that he sold his own personal JUUL to another student because he decided it was just as easy to use it from his friends. He also estimated that only around ten percent of self-proclaimed “juulers” actually own the device, while everyone else borrows one from their peers.
Many students are introduced to juuling by peers in bathrooms at school, and the willingness of Acalanes JUUL owners to share means that substances will be readily available for those that choose to partake in their use on campus.
With limited information regarding health effects, easy purchasing access, and subtle usage, juuling has blown up on the Acalanes campus. Blueprint-conducted surveys suggest that juuling initially became popular at Acalanes sometime during the 2016-17 school year, when electronic cigarettes were somewhat of a rarity on campus. Now they are prevalent not only in the bathrooms, but in the halls and sometimes even in classrooms as well.
“It’s part of being the new generation,” Student 1 said about the growing culture surrounding JUUL. “For me it’s kind of exciting to be a part of the new coming of something, part of the generation, to experience it.”
Surveys conducted by the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that more than 11 percent of high schoolers regularly used e-cigs in 2016, up from just over one percent in 2011. However, multiple Acalanes students who frequently use e-cigs suggested to Blueprint that many more students have tried e-cigs at least once, and that the 11 percent statistic does not completely capture the scope at which the devices are regularly used by Acalanes students.
“I would guess that probably 50 percent of Acalanes students have tried it,” Student 1 said. “I would say that around 15 percent of kids commonly use it.”
A student who requested that her name be withheld due to the illegality of her friends’ associated actions explained, “It’s more likely that one of my friends will have an extra JUUL with them than have an extra pencil. I mean, you can’t go into the bathroom without seeing kids juuling.”
One measure that may help combat the use of JUULs and other electronic cigarettes on campus is the introduction of Human and Social Development, a semester course required for all sophomores.
“That class is extremely interesting to me right now, especially as we learn about the brain and the effects of the things you take,” Student 1 said. “It’s really cool to know exactly what’s going on and then you can be more educated about your decisions.”
After gaining more information on various substances’ effects on his body, Student 1 said that he has decreased his use of nicotine and other illicit drugs.
Bell agrees that the class, as well as other methods of education, will aid in deterring students and be the most effective way to battle the issue.
“That, to me, is going to be the greatest deterrent for our students—sharing about it in Human and Social Development, talking about that in our freshman seminar, and making sure that parents are aware,” Bell said.
Other Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) administrators are optimistic that informing students on the risks of vaping and regulating campus will contribute to the reduction of the problem on campus.
“I’m hopeful that in time through education and different types of enforcement, it will be a non-issue on campuses,” AUHSD Superintendent John Nickerson said.
Still, the use of electronic cigarettes continues on the Acalanes campus. However, some students believe that, like all other trends that come and go, the prestige of the JUUL and other such devices is already fading.
“I would say that juuling is a fad and that it’s already going out of style. If you have one, it doesn’t make you cool,” Student 1 said. “It’s no longer a status symbol, but it used to be.”