In March, while reporting a feature about vaping, I interviewed a Cornell junior named Jason Jeong, who had written a college newspaper column called “The Juul Manifesto.” A tongue-in-cheek tribute to the irony-steeped habits of today’s young people, the piece celebrated the paradox of a generation that can pronounce the phrase “açai bowl” but made a meme out of eating Tide Pods. Juuling—what people under the age of thirty or so call vaping, thanks to the industry-dominating success of the independent, San Francisco-based company—was almost definitely a terrible decision, Jeong wrote. “But let’s not forget this time of youthful ignorance and how incredible it was to own an e-cigarette in 2018.” That era seems to be ending. Last month, Jeong published a follow-up column, called “Juul Season Is Over.” In it, he wrote that “no analysis or criticism of our collective fervor for the Juul will ever be as compelling as the fact that we have all become addicted to nicotine.” It was time, he added, to “address the Juul as what it is: the public health crisis of our generation.”
In the past six months, things have changed rapidly for Juul. The company’s valuation rose to sixteen billion dollars over the summer; it now controls nearly three-quarters of the e-cigarette market in the U.S. At the same time, it remains at the mercy of the Food and Drug Administration, which has regulated tobacco products since 2009. Scott Gottlieb, the current head of the F.D.A., has reiterated that “there’s a continuum of risk” when it comes to nicotine, and that there is a public interest in keeping safer cigarette alternatives on the market. But the agency is under intense pressure to crack down on vapes. (San Francisco recently passed the most restrictive ban on flavored tobacco products in the country. Juul, in the meantime, has hired lobbyists and ramped up its political spending.) In September, the F.D.A. gave Juul a sixty-day deadline to prove that it could keep its products away from young people.
On Tuesday, Juul announced that it will no longer sell its flavored pods—each of which contains the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes—in retail stores. Mint, tobacco, and menthol pods will still be available in vape shops and convenience stores; mango, mixed fruit, crème brûlée, and cucumber will only be sold on its Web site. In most states, you can buy e-cigarettes at eighteen, but you have to be twenty-one to use Juul’s online store, and buying Juul pods legally on the Internet can be as tricky as voting in Georgia: Juul employees manually check driver’s licenses and public records for exact matches, and end up rejecting quite a few actual adults from making purchases. According to the Times, the company is nixing forty-five per cent of its brick-and-mortar sales by cutting flavors—although Juul also said that it would eventually reinstate flavored pods at stores with vetted age-verification technology. On Thursday, the F.D.A. announced that stores would be permitted to continue selling flavored e-cigarettes in areas cordoned off from minors. “A curtain won’t cut it,” Gottlieb said.
Vaping comes with a built-in public-health dilemma, which The Atlantic recently referred to as a “mango-flavored trolley problem.” Though cigarette smoking is now widely frowned upon by the young and the wealthy, it still causes nearly five hundred thousand deaths each year. For regular smokers who would like to quit but have not been able to, vaping can be a godsend. (Long-term data is not yet available on vaping’s side effects, but the habit is almost certainly much safer than smoking cigarettes.) But for young people who have never smoked before, vaping is a quick path to nicotine dependency. And this population—the high-school and college kids who hate cigarettes but may really love Juuling—is the primary object of the F.D.A.’s concern. In September, shortly before the agency raided Juul’s headquarters, leaving with more than a thousand documents about the company’s marketing practices, Gottlieb stated that the F.D.A. “won’t tolerate a whole generation of young people becoming addicted to nicotine as a trade-off for enabling adults to have unfettered access to these same products.”
With that in mind, Juul, on Tuesday, also shut down its Facebook and Instagram accounts. The company has always maintained that it has never intentionally advertised to teen-agers—and, in fact, for awhile now its advertising has been deliberately staid. But Juul never really needed to deliberately market its wares to teens. They make a social-media-friendly, pocket-size device full of a highly addictive substance: teen-agers have been happy to advertise Juul to one another, unpaid. When I was reporting my vaping piece this past spring, viral Juul accounts were all over Instagram, several of them more popular than the official account, @Juulvapor. Juul styles itself as a sort of Silicon Valley health-technology company, and it is eager to prove, as the C.E.O., Kevin Burns, asserted on Tuesday, that “preventing youth from initiating on nicotine” is a goal it shares with the F.D.A. It has been surprisingly successful in getting Instagram to take down Juul content—all the unofficial accounts that I followed when I was reporting the piece vanished months ago. The remaining #juulgang accounts have, at most, only a few thousand followers, and they are seedier and less funny than they used to be: lots of boob videos and spammy hashtags, no more vibrantly stupid memes.
It’s possible that Juul’s cultural currency among young people had already peaked before the recent crackdown, though it will be a while before we know for sure: the National Youth Tobacco Survey, administered yearly, produces data that, by the time it comes out, is already a little outdated—on teen-trend time, at least. (What has been released so far of the 2018 data shows a significant increase, over the previous year, in monthly users, but there is no data yet from the past few months.) “The social media fanfare has died down,” Jason Jeong wrote to me in an e-mail. I texted Katie McCracken, a sophomore at the University of Virginia—whose mint Juul I once sampled in a campus library, for research—and asked if she thought the flavor ban would have an effect. “I don’t think kids are going to keep Juuling if they have to do tobacco or menthol,” she replied. She thought the Juul trend was fading out, anyway. “I definitely don’t Juul as much as I used to. At this point the people who are really addicted to nicotine will keep using it, but the people who do it casually, especially kids, will probably stop.”
I called up another young woman, Kate, from Houston, who had previously told me about her high school’s bustling Juul-pod black market. Her classmates had caught word, last week, that Juul was likely to stop selling flavored pods in brick-and-mortar locations. “I know a lot of kids have been stocking up, if you will,” Kate said. “People are also saving empty pods to refill with juice from actual mod vapes, so they can sell them.”
“Mod” here means modified: it is possible, if tricky, to refill a Juul pod with other flavored nicotine liquid. For now, it also remains pretty easy for teens to buy bootleg or knockoff Juul pods, and it seems likely that the sketchy knockoff-pod business will soar, and that other teen-friendly vapes, like the Suorin and the Phix, will become more popular. (The “Juul dealer” markup at local middle and high schools also seems liable to increase: anecdotally, the majority of underage Juulers buy their pods from other kids.) Kate, like almost every young person I’ve spoken to about this topic, didn’t think that her peers would start smoking cigarettes, no matter how much they were hooked on nicotine. And I suspect that a meaningful portion of casual Juulers will, without easy access to flavored pods, lose interest. But a casual Juuler becomes a habitual one very quickly. “Most of my friends who bought the Juul for occasional stress relief now can’t leave their apartments without it in their pocket,” Jeong told me. I can also imagine being a young Juuler and switching from mango pods to mint pods, or maybe to tobacco. In terms of flavor, the jump to cigarettes gets shorter from there.
Juul’s changes may also have consequences for adult ex-smokers. As Jim McDonald, who writes for the Web site Vaping360, noted on Tuesday, “Tricky teenagers will always find a way to buy adult products. But many older adults—especially poor ones—won’t jump through JUUL’s high-tech hoops to try their best products. However, buying a pack of Marlboros will remain as easy as it ever was.” Several of my friends who used mango Juul pods to quit smoking cigarettes panicked about the company’s announcement that they would restrict retail sales: if you can’t sign for packages during the workday then you can’t easily buy Juul pods from the company Web site, because you technically have to verify your age in person in order to take a delivery of products containing nicotine.
And another Juul problem seems to be emerging. There are many adults who, like me, bummed a lot of cigarettes when they were young and stressed or drinking but, when they got older, either mostly or completely stopped. I don’t have any data on this, but, after six months of routinely finding myself talking to strangers about vaping, I would bet my weight in pods that a lot of formerly casual smokers in their late twenties, thirties, and forties have developed a new Juul habit—and that, like many former heavy smokers, they often take in much more nicotine through vaping than they ever did with cigarettes.
It is good, regardless, that Juul Season may be over for a lot of young people. It would be ideal if Juul took a dramatic downslide toward the land of the old and uncool. Still, there is something strange, and tragic, and ultra-American, about the fact that, in many states, it will be harder for an eighteen-year-old to buy a mango Juul pod than to buy a gun.
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