Chances are, you’ve recently seen a headline about e-cigarettes or vaping devices in the news. Chances are, you yourself or someone you know smokes using an electronic device. This means that you’re probably polarized about this issue. With the bans, the price hikes, and the warnings issued, it might be hard to know what to think or feel amid the facts and all of the divisiveness. The current firestorm of probes, warnings, and research about illnesses feels like a cross between the beginnings of prohibition and the period of time when big tobacco was finally exposed for contributing to serious illnesses. So let’s walk through what’s led up to this moment, what’s happening right now, and what we should be doing next.
Juul Labs was founded in 2017 by two Stanford graduate students who also created the Pax cannabis and loose-leaf tobacco vaporizer (Juul was released in 2015, but didn’t become independent from its parent company until two years later). Juul became hugely popular with investors and consumers alike. In late 2017, Juul became mainstream when they started advertising their product as a lifestyle accessory for those who wanted a “safer” alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes. By this point, Juul had perfected their nicotine salt purification method — which they use instead of freebase nicotine. This method results in a cartridge that is “easier” to smoke than other e-cigs. These salts also have a very high potency; these attributes often lead people who are not used to smoking (read: teenagers) to consume much higher quantities of nicotine than they would in cigarettes. In December 2018, the Altaria Group acquired a 35% stake in Juul Labs for $12.8 Billion (big B BILLION). Why is this so important, you might ask? The Altaria Group is the parent company of Marlboro. Marlboro has had a storied history of marketing its products as “safer” alternatives to traditional cigarettes, which is exactly what Juul was doing at the time. Juul’s marketing tactics caused backlash because of how they portrayed young, stylish people in their 20s and 30s using this product — a move that was scrutinized by many as marketing that targeted teens. Then, the FDA launched an investigation into Juul labs. Following this, the CDC warned people to stay away from vaping after 530 cases of vaping-related illnesses occurred and eight related deaths were reported. Labeled a crisis, an epidemic, and the worst spike in nicotine consumption among high schoolers in recent history, vaping is certainly one of the most controversial issues in public health right now.
A Public Health Crisis, Regulatory Issue, or Just Looking in the Wrong Place?
With the onset of the FDA’s criminal probe into Juul, officials labeling vaping as an epidemic, and countless users claiming that Juul helped them transition away from cigarettes, there are so many different sides to this story. So, you might ask, what on Earth is happening right now with e-cigarettes? It’s actually pretty murky. Besides the FDA, California’s Attorney General has apparently opened up an investigation into Juul Labs (neither party has commented on this development). The House Committee for Oversight and Reform held a hearing about e-cigarette use that testified how vaping-related illnesses are on the rise, survey results showed that almost one in ten eighth graders vaped, a quarter of twelfth graders had used an electronic cigarette within the past 30 days, and that there had been a huge spike in use from 2018 to 2019. These numbers are shocking — the United States hasn’t had nicotine consumption increase like this since a battery of public health programs aimed at high schoolers worked to reduce smoking rates. Kansas’s governor has said that she plans to look at several options in order to reduce vaping rates among high schoolers. Colorado has increased the presence of drug and alcohol counseling in school districts. However, it is also important to examine what’s happening on the federal level. E-cigarettes are currently unregulated by the government. Additionally, there has been a spike in illegal and fake products designed for vaping devices. One of the most common is THC cartridges for Juuls, which are linked to illnesses at a much higher rate than nicotine-only cartridges. But that doesn’t mean the official products are much better. A study from Duke University showed that there were high levels of pulegone (a carcinogen banned in the EU and Canada) in mint- and menthol-flavored e-cigarettes. This chemical has been banned as a food additive by the FDA because of its carcinogenic properties — leading people to wonder how it could get into e-cig cartridges. Despite all of the evidence that it is harmful to health, there are a large number of people who use vaping products that assert they would be hooked on cigarettes if not for these devices. They also remain steadfast in their belief that these are the safer alternative to traditional combustible cigarettes. Juul — among other e-cig companies — has defended the position that their product is safer for consumption than cigarettes. These differing opinions, along with research still being in its early stages, shows that there is still an unclear path forward on how to handle vaping.
So… What Now?
If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering when the next bomb is gonna drop around this issue. When the next vaping-related illness is going to arise, when the next investigation is going to be launched, when the next public health initiative is going to start. If you use an e-cig or just know someone who does, you’re probably wondering if said person should continue to use that device. You might also be wondering just how much longer these devices will be legal for purchase and use. And if they become illegal, what negative consequences will occur from prohibition? Think moonshine mobsters from the ’20s and ’30s, but now for Juuls. There would also be even less regulation around contents and distribution — both of which could prove extremely dangerous. I’ve given you the history, facts, and expert opinions. Now it’s time for my three key takeaways from when I was researching this article:
1. Discourage those you know in high school from using e-cigarettes.
2. If you can’t quit vaping, at least avoid mint and menthol-flavored cartridges.
3. Instead of a prohibition, push for increased research and regulation for this industry. This will allow for a safer choice than what people would get on a black market.