At the heart of the controversial rise of teen vapers is Juul Labs, a California-based company whose exponential growth in recent years has given it a 73 percent market share in the $2.5 billion American e-cigarette market. Like cigarettes, vapes draw their nicotine from tobacco, but instead of lighting up, users get their hit from a liquid sold in both closed pods and refillable tanks, depending on which brand’s system they choose. That liquid is then heated, creating the vapor that gives the product category its name.
Juul has sold millions of its ultra-popular vapes, which use a closed-pod system. The only way to use one is to buy its refills, which have been available both in stores and online. The pods come in tobacco-flavored versions and ones with additives that create sweet or fruity flavors, which have been a particular target of critical ire for their potential appeal to underage vapers. But on Friday, CNBC reported that in response to the FDA’s expected changes, Juul will soon announce plans to voluntarily remove all of its flavored products from most brick-and-mortar stores. It’s unclear if that includes vape and tobacco shops. (The company declined a request for comment.)
Since its 2015 launch, Juul has been an object of particular fascination among teens. At first, the company’s ads had a far brighter, more youthful feel. Now, as an apparent concession to regulators and critics, its ads feature only people over age 35 who have actually quit cigarettes by vaping. Despite the change in advertising demographics, the brand’s small, slender vapes look like flash drives and charge via USB, which makes them ultra-portable and, for teens, easy to conceal from parents and teachers.
Vape juice (its actual name!) contains tobacco derivatives, so its sale is legally restricted to people age 18 and over. Juul’s website verifies a shopper’s age during account creation. According to experts, though, that isn’t enough to keep the product out of teens’ hands. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a developmental psychologist and professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, says that teens vapers’ first stop isn’t at stores. “The majority of youth get their products from each other, and second from smoke or vape shops. Youth are not getting them from convenience stores,” she says.
Because of the lucrative black market in teen social circles, even if the products are removed from most brick-and-mortar locations, it would only take an enterprising underage teen with a helpful older sibling (or simply an 18-year-old high-school senior) to keep a whole school stocked up on Juul pods. Moreover, Halpern-Felsher says her recent research indicates teens like the mint and menthol options—the ones the FDA will reportedly allow to remain widely available in stores—just as much as the fruitier flavors. “We need to ban flavors across the board, in all areas of sales,” Halpern-Felsher says. “This is a good first step, but it’s not enough.”
More Info: theatlantic.com