JUUL Labs announced changes to its marketing and products fol;lowing a public warning by the FDA. Credit: Courtesy TNS

It doesn’t take much searching to find someone using an e-cigarette on campus, but the devices that came on to the scene as a safe smoking alternative might actually be a fruity problem.

According to Dr. Robert Jackler, professor and chair of the Department of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine, e-cigarettes have helped create a “nicotine arms race.” Instead of lowering the use of nicotine, e-cigarettes have seen an alarming increase of use among America’s youth, which can largely be connected to JUUL Labs that came on the market in 2015.

“JUUL is absolutely a gateway to nicotine and young people all over America are getting addicted to nicotine using JUUL,” Jackler said. “Once you’re addicted to nicotine as a young person, there’s some evidence that it rewires your brain and makes you more susceptible to further addictions.”

JUUL Labs, which is now worth $15 billion, beat out Facebook as the fastest company ever to reach a valuation of $10 billion, Jackler said. Also, JUUL Labs holds a 76 percent share of the e-cigarette market, meaning 1-in-3 e-cigarette sales will be a JUUL product.

The 2018 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that around 21 percent of high schoolers use e-cigarettes, a 78 percent increase from 2017.

The Federal Drug Administration released a statement in September regarding the JUUL epidemic among teens, pressuring the company to change its marketing techniques that allowed minors to easily obtain its products.

JUUL announced in November that it would stop selling its mango, fruit, creme and cucumber flavored pods in all retail stores, but will still sell them on its website, which requires buyers to be 21 and older.

Smoke Zone, a local vape store on High Street, discontinued its supply of JUUL products in October after the FDA statement was released, according to Smoke Zone employee Alan Bischoff.

Bischoff said that Smoke Zone originally started carrying JUUL products in June due to the high demand on campus. In the time they sold JUUL products, the fruity flavors sold much quicker than the tobacco flavors, he said.

“All the ones you sell are mango, mint and crème brulee; it doesn’t taste like nicotine, you don’t feel like your smoking,” Bischoff said. “The last ones you sell will be tobacco.”

Jackler believes the flavors are what hook young people in to trying the product. He said he believes JUUL markets its sweet and fruity flavors to teens the same way super markets organize their fruity flavored cereal on the bottom shelves in a kid’s sightline while the bland, corn cereal flavors are at the top for adults.

In addition to the FDA statement, Bischoff said the store stopped selling JUUL products because Smoke Zone employees didn’t like them, didn’t want to risk selling to minors and felt they weren’t feasible for students. He pointed to a sign in the store that said that 42 JUUL pod ($168 worth) is equivalent to one $20 bottle of vape juice, encouraging e-cigarette users to choose the long-term cheaper option.

“It’s not good for you and it’s not cost effective, so we’re not going to rip people off,” Bischoff said.

Jackler estimated JUUL users spend roughly $1,000 to $2,000 a year just to feed their nicotine addiction.

Other “copycat” companies are creating products like JUUL at cheaper prices to make creating a nicotine addiction more feasible, according to Jackler, which is what he feels is a huge part of the nicotine arms race.

Jackler said that nicotine itself isn’t hugely problematic but rather the vehicle that brings the nicotine. He said that breathing in the vapor and flavoring chemicals can harm the lungs.

E-cigarettes are almost certainly safer than regular combustible cigarettes, Jackler said, but that doesn’t mean that smoking e-cigarettes is safe. He said research on the long-term effects of using e-cigarettes is in the works and might be ready within the next two years, which will hopefully combat the idea of e-cigarettes being harmless devices.

“We know that if you start smoking [cigarettes] as a teenager, you don’t get lung cancer right away but rather when you’re forty or fifty,” Jackler said. “We are very concerned that people who are starting with JUUL today if they use it for ten or 20 years they’re likely to get serious lung disease.”

Bischoff said JUUL is not promoted as a product that contains high levels of nicotine, but rather as something that tastes good and is popular. He said he doesn’t believe anyone needs the amount of nicotine provided in JUUL pods that people would desire to get their hands on.

JUUL pods contain around five percent of nicotine per pod, one of the highest levels of nicotine on the market, which is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes. Jackler said that the level of nicotine in JUUL pods are intended for heavily addicted adult smokers, which can be dangerous in the hands of a naïve young person trying nicotine for the first time.

Jackler said that most users are unaware of the amount or the presence of nicotine in JUUL pods making them prone to unwittingly developing an addiction.

“It doesn’t take too much JUUL before you become hooked and before first thing in the morning you’re looking for your JUUL to take a hit and you’re going out between classes or even in the back of a classroom and blowing the vapor down your shirt or into a backpack cause you really crave it and you need it,” Jackler said. “Once that’s happening, you are addicted and it’s going to be very hard to stop.”

E-cigarettes were introduced originally to help wean off addicted cigarette smokers. With the misuse of products by young people, Jackler suggests that e-cigarette users trying to quit can either switch to lower nicotine leveled products gradually, meet with a doctor who helps with tobacco cessation or quit cold turkey.