Public health experts and the FDA now say that e-cigarette use among teens has become an epidemic. Fueling that is the e-cigarette device “JUUL,” which has gained popularity among college students, teens, and pre-teens nationwide.
JUUL use increased 80 percent among high school students and 50 percent among middle school students since last year, according to the FDA. A survey conducted by the Truth Initiative stated that 1 in 5 students between the ages of 12-17 years old has seen JUUL used in school. Although you have to be 21 years old to purchase JUUL, it’s not very difficult for minors to obtain it illegally.
What is JUUL?
It’s important to know what JUUL is, what it looks like, and the harmful effects of it, in order to educate our children and provide them with the knowledge they need to make their own informed decisions. JUUL is a battery-powered device that heats a nicotine-containing liquid to produce an aerosol that is inhaled. JUUL has a discreet design: it has cool colors and tasty flavors; the vapor is odorless and evaporates quickly; it’s easy to conceal; and it gives a quick and intense nicotine high.
JUUL Labs produce the JUUL device and JUUL pods, which are inserted into the device. The device looks very similar to a USB flash drive, and can be charged in the USB port of a computer, again making it easier to conceal and more difficult for adults to identify. According to JUUL Labs, all JUUL pods contain flavorings and e-liquid with 5 percent nicotine by weight, which they claim to be the equivalent amount of nicotine as a whole pack of cigarettes.
How is JUUL marketed?
Until recently the JUUL company was encouraging, and at times paying for, social media users to promote their JUUL product to thousands of youth on Instagram. The President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Matthew Myers, says, “Social media works well for this kind of marketing, and it doesn’t take a lot of money; you only need a small number of people who are popular and get reposted to reach a very large number of people online. If you hit the right people doing it, then it just takes off.” The JUUL company engaged with social media users in other ways too, commenting on posts, offering discounts on products, using popular hash tags, and reposting photos of JUULing taken by other users.
One CNN study noted the high number of JUUL-related tweets that exploded in 2017, and 25 percent of users retweeting about the company were under 18 years old. The JUUL company knew the science behind the adolescent developing brain and knew that targeting this young age group would get them easily hooked and make billions for the e-cigarette industry. Sadly, our youth have been manipulated and bamboozled by JUUL marketing, aimed at getting them addicted. According to Bloomberg, revenues for JUUL increased almost 800 percent from 2017-2018, with most of its sales coming from teens. JUUL employees became instant millionaires overnight.
Is JUUL safer than cigarettes?
The number of students in the country using JUUL is alarming and raises serious concerns about nicotine addiction. Many teens that use JUUL actually think that it is a safer alternative than smoking cigarettes. Some young JUUL users believe that they are not even consuming nicotine when they are JUULing, which is false. Most teens are not aware of the number of cancer-causing, or carcinogenic, volatile organic compounds, including propylene oxide, acrylamide, acrylonitrile, and crotonaldehyde that are found in JUUL.
Nicotine is a highly addictive stimulant for teens. According to the CDC, when inhaled, nicotine enters the bloodstream, crosses the blood-brain barrier, and enters the brain within 10-20 seconds. Addiction to nicotine is one of the hardest to overcome, with addiction characteristics being similar to that of cocaine and heroin. Compounding the problem, a teen’s chances of becoming addicted to any drug are greater than an adult’s. Mix that increased sensitivity and the addictive nature of nicotine, and you have a recipe for an addicted teen. Research conducted by Stanford found that the rate of addiction to nicotine is relative to exposure; so, increasing doses of e-cigarettes to experience more intense highs increases the chance the teen will become addicted.
Nicotine use during teen years causes developmental issues in the part of the brain that controls attention, performance, and the ability to understand complex ideas. While nicotine causes cellular damage to brain cells regardless of age, the damage done to the teenage hippocampus is alarming. Since the hippocampus is responsible for memory and mood regulation, it may be expected that teens using nicotine would have problems with memory tasks, cognitive issues, poor impulse control, and mood-behaviors. That is exactly what psychologists and behavior scientists discovered. Nicotine is the primary agent of destruction for the adolescent brain, not necessarily the carcinogenic byproducts of JUULing.
What should we tell our teens?
It is critical for teens to be made aware of the possible consequences of introducing a drug like nicotine into their developmental process. It’s important for them to know the truth behind these substances in order to make wise decisions about using nicotine-based products, and not simply fall for the marketing rhetoric. Presenting them with the correct information and education about the effects of nicotine on their bodies and brains, as well as sharing the marketing tactics to get them hooked, is the responsibility of all of us.
I encourage all parents to have a conversation with their children about JUULing. Find out what they know or don’t know about it, and see if they have all of the right information regarding the risks. Most adolescents never like to be told what to do. Therefore, by asking them what they know or believe, and providing them with the correct information and education, we can give them the knowledge and agency to make their own informed decisions in life.
If teens are addicted, doctors say they can quit, but it’s critical they get parental support, professional counseling, and peer support as well. Extra help is available by calling a free quitline, a telephone-based tobacco cessation service. If you don’t have a local number, you can start with the national quitline number 1-800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669), which is operated by the National Cancer Institute.
Below are links to more resources on starting the conversation with your child: