Ask most vaping advocates, and they’ll be honest with you: Teen e-cigarette use is an issue.
The evidence seems clear: Study after study shows a dramatic increase. The National Youth Tobacco Survey found that 21% of high school students and 5% of middle school students tried e-cigarettes in 2018, an increase of 78% and 48% respectively over the previous year.
Other studies echo equally dramatic increases in e-cigarette use among U.S. youth, too. But why? While those opposed to vaping are quick to blame flavors — and amid more than 1,000 cases of lung injuries and at least 18 deaths connected to vaping, the Trump Administration wants to ban flavored vaping products nationwide. But e-cigarettes have been around for the better part of a decade. Something changed in these past few years to cause dramatic increases in teen e-cigarette use.
The more likely culprit? Juul.
The first e-cigarette devices required a bit of knowledge and elbow grease. You couldn’t just buy a pod at a store and be on your way: You needed a battery or device (called a ‘box mod’, see the picture below) to power the refillable cartridge or tank. Cartridges and tanks weren’t “fill and go” either. They needed coils, wicking, maintenance, and most importantly, juice.
If you wanted to vape, you had to work for it. These systems were also significantly larger: You can hide a Juul in your hand or your pocket, but the box mod sticks out like a sore thumb. While manufacturers have shrunken down the size of e-cigarette devices over time, they still are pretty hard to hide.
That changed with Juul (and, in fairness, any other pod system). Since the pod is a closed system not designed to be disassembled and modified, manufacturers can shrink down these devices and their cartridges significantly. These devices are now much easier to hide than a pack of cigarettes or a box mod.
“The problem is your pod systems,” Jai Gyorfi, who covers vaping extensively as ‘Jai Haze’ to his 172,000 subscribers on YouTube, told Digital Trends earlier this month. “Juul wasn’t the first pod type system, but it’s the one that everybody knows. That’s the easiest for kids to hide.”
Indeed, if you look at e-cigarette statistics, there appears to be a correlation between the launch of Juul and dramatic increases in vaping among teens. Over the seven years that the CDC, NCI, and FDA have been tracking vaping among youth, the availability of easy to use e-cigarettes seems to be behind the increases in use.
Juul also appears to acknowledge its role. “I have long believed in a future where adult smokers overwhelmingly choose alternative products like Juul,” incoming CEO K.C. Crosthwaite said in a statement upon taking over the company in September. “Unfortunately, today that future is at risk due to unacceptable levels of youth usage and eroding public confidence in our industry. Against that backdrop, we must strive to work with regulators, policymakers and other stakeholders, and earn the trust of the societies in which we operate.”
Juul did not respond to Digital Trends’ request for comment for this article.
Crosthwaite and the new incoming leadership team say they’ll review the company’s business practices to address increasing criticism of the company. One immediate change is the suspension of all broadcast, print, and online advertising within the U.S.
Kantar Media estimates that Juul and its parent company Altria Labs spent an estimated $104 million in just the first six months of 2019. That’s up significantly from 2018, where it spent just $74 million for the entire year (and only $20,000 in 2017).
These advertisements were “patently youth-oriented” according to a Stanford University study.
“Juul’s advertising imagery in its first six months on the market was patently youth-oriented. For the next two and a half years it was more muted, but the company’s advertising was widely distributed on social media channels frequented by youth, was amplified by hashtag extensions, and catalyzed by compensated influencers and affiliates,” the study’s conclusion reads.
With teens exposed to Juul’s advertising, often replete with young-looking individuals in trendy dress in places that youth would find attractive, Juul’s became “cool.” Add to this the fact that the brand explicitly marketed itself to popular influencers on social media, exposing teens to Juul in large numbers.
The FTC is also reportedly investigating Juul over these exact marketing practice, however, a spokesperson told Digital Trends that it “[does] not confirm the existence of, or comment on, investigations.”
The data seems to further this point. While Blu was one of the first to commoditize vaping back in 2009, its easy to use disposable options weren’t available until a few years later. Other companies followed, and that is likely behind the first jump in youth e-cigarette use that appears in the data from 2013 to 2014. However, e-cigarette use leveled out over the next few years, before dramatically increasing again from 2017 to 2018, this time likely due to the popularity of Juul and the massive advertising push that began in 2018.
While Juul launched in January 2015, it wasn’t until about a year or so later where it was easy to find the company’s pods. But within two years, it became the top-selling e-cigarette in the U.S., with a third of all sales nationwide. By August of this year, that had skyrocketed to 72%. With a massive market share, availability of pods is now widespread.
Today’s consumer doesn’t need a vape shop or tobacco store to get their fix: It is now available at the convenience store down the street. Teens know this too, and just like years past where they’d stand outside looking for someone to buy them a pack of smokes, they now do the same for Juul pods.
Gyorfi and others within the vaping industry that we spoke to all agreed that the increases in teen vaping have more to do with access, and the data seems to support that claim.
A return to limited availability of e-cigarette products seems like a smart move and one that does the least amount of harm. Data was already showing before Juul’s rise that traditional tobacco use was decreasing as e-cigarette use increased. Recent health crises aside, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that vaping isn’t a healthier alternative to tobacco use in some way.
By limiting e-juice and e-cigarette availability to specialty shops, it will become far more difficult for these products to end up in the hands of our youth. While the evidence is anecdotal, such a system worked well for years. Industry groups have long pushed shops to card customers, and many prohibit minors from entering their stores at all.
It might also be prudent to ban pod systems altogether, too. Yes, it would be inconvenient for those of us who might not want to fill a tank or change a wick or coil. But if the other option is a flavor ban that will likely only push vapers back to smoking, it might be a worthwhile alternative.
As Jai Haze told us, “adults like flavoring too.” Taking away the flavors in e-cigarettes is not going to magically curb vaping among teens. What it could do instead is push people either back to smoking cigarettes or producing flavored juices on their own, some in the industry fear. This may cause an even bigger epidemic of illnesses as vapers attempt to produce juice on their own in non-sanitary conditions or worse yet purchase it from places where there is no regulation or no standards on how e-juice is produced.
That is obviously not what either the industry nor the Trump Administration wants. But with a flavor ban apparently imminent, that may be the unintended consequence.
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