How Juul Hooked Kids and Ignited a Public Health Crisis

September 20, 2019

In the Scheetz household, back-to-school anxiety reached new heights this fall.

Jami Scheetz’s 15-year-old son Devon, who has severe asthma, kicked a brutal vaping habit over the summer, with help from a nicotine patch. But as soon as school started and he was once again around kids vaping, his habit returned. On Sept. 12, Devon vaped at school and immediately began sweating and vomiting.

Though Scheetz, who lives in Sellersville, Pa., says her son is now fine, she can’t shake thoughts of kids who have been hospitalized or died after using e-cigarettes. “Vaping scares me more [than smoking], because they don’t know what’s really in it,” she says.

To a remarkable degree, a single company is front and center in one of the biggest public-health crises facing the country: the sharp rise in vaping among teenagers and young adults. In 2018, 30% of the nation’s 12th-graders reported vaping nicotine at least once in the past year, according to a January 2019 study sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The study said the increase in vaping last year was “the largest ever recorded for any substance in the 44 years” that it has tracked adolescent drug use.

Though Juul is not the only e-cigarette for sale in the U.S., it is largely blamed for the vaping explosion and controls about 50% of the market, putting a sharp focus on the company.

On Sept. 9, the Food and Drug Administration sent Juul a warning letter accusing the company of violating federal regulations by promoting its e-cigarettes as a safer option than traditional cigarettes and threatening the company with fines and product seizures if it continued. Two days later, the Trump Administration said it planned to pull from the market flavored e-cigarettes such as Juul’s mango, creme and mint pods. In the Oval Office, with First Lady Melania at his side, President Trump said, “We can’t allow people to get sick. And we can’t have our youth be so affected.”

He added that the First Lady, who tweeted a warning about vaping, feels “very, very strongly” about the issue because of their teenage son Barron. Just days later, New York banned most flavored e-cigarettes statewide, following in the footsteps of Michigan and Juul’s home city of San Francisco, whose mayor signed an ordinance effectively banning e-cigarettes.

The recent moves were prompted by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports of almost 400 serious lung illnesses and six deaths it linked to vaping, which a congressional committee is also investigating. While Juul products have not been implicated in the deaths, the CDC in September advised Americans to “consider not using e-cigarette products” while its investigation is ongoing. The American Lung Association went further, saying in a statement that “no one should use e-cigarettes or any other tobacco product.” Huge international markets, including India and China, are also restricting the sale of e-cigarettes.

Given the possible risks to the nation’s youth, Juul’s rapid growth has been accompanied by remarkably little oversight or regulation. And while there is a legitimate debate over whether e-cigarettes are safer for adult smokers than traditional cigarettes, and whether they can help addicts quit smoking, critics argue that Juul has assiduously followed Big Tobacco’s playbook: aggressively marketing to youth and making implied health claims a central pillar of its business plan.

Juul maintains that it is not Big Tobacco 2.0. In eight months, unless e-cigarette companies can prove to the FDA that vaping is “appropriate for the protection of public health,” the products could be pulled from the market. That would curtail youth use, but some fear it could also cut off adult smokers’ access to a potentially beneficial product.

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Related: What Juuling Does to Your Body (It’s Not Pretty)

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