Discarded Juul pods collected from students were collected by newspaper students prior to publishing this story. Photo by Buzzy Staten/Nighthawk News Magazine

Up in smoke: Juuling started as just a fad but has become an ‘epidemic’ targeted by the FDA

By Hannah Ellington, Editor-in-Chief

It’s 7:30 a.m. and you’ve just finished getting ready for the school day. As you grab your things and head toward the door, you suddenly remember one crucial part of the day you were about to leave behind. No, it’s not your cup of coffee or your Chromebook, but a crown jewel hidden away, sitting in silence beneath your down pillows, ready to provide you with that sweet, sweet head buzz you crave.

As you pull up to school, music blaring so everyone can hear, you sit in your car waiting for the 8 o’clock bell. Puff after puff, you hit your Juul, preparing for the onslaught of what you tell yourself promises to be a terrible Tuesday. The only thing that gets you through the day seems so small, so insignificant, but it’s the most meaningful thing you’ve ever owned. Without it, you would be incomplete, and no one would be able to ask, “Hey, do you have a Juul?” which is, undoubtedly, the best human interaction ever.

Throughout your school day, it’s not long before you are already itching for another hit of your Juul, not to mention the fact that math class feels like it’s taking 20 years. The only cure for your boredom is to ask to run an errand for the third time since you’ve sat down in second period – the teacher obviously doesn’t suspect a thing. Walking into the school bathroom, the sound of someone pulling in a deep, crackling breath can be heard like surround sound from the stalls. Finally, you feel at home.

Is this the new normal for today’s high school student?

Generations before us have smoked cigarettes in the school bathroom, in restaurants and movie theaters, yet they eventually realized how dangerous that was. Schools became tobacco-free and people started smoking less.

Yet, here you are, walking in the footsteps of your parents and grandparents with the only difference being that Juuls are more high-tech delivery devices for nicotine.

When will this generation realize the dangers of Juuling? And when those dangers are realized – will it be too late?

FDA announces Juul crackdown

On Sept. 12, the FDA declared that Juuling by underage children had become an “epidemic” and that the company JUUL Labs had 60 days to figure out a way to keep these nicotine products away from customers who are under 18 before being taken off the shelf.

The Food and Drug Administration also sent warning letters and fines to over 1,300 retailers – including 7-Eleven, Circle K, Mobil and Exxon – that have illegally sold Juul and other e-cigarette products to those who are underage, according to FDA.gov.

“There’s really been some very blatant health risks, so that’s (the FDA’s) job, to take things off the market,” school nurse Robyn Dozier said.

Some people have been shocked to hear this announcement, especially since Juuls have become commonplace. But because society now understands the damage cigarettes cause, the FDA’s quick move against JUUL Labs should come as no surprise.

“If this situation would have happened 10, 20, 30 years ago, it would not be taken off the market,” Principal Tim Albert said. “The cigarette situation went on for so long and nobody fought the big cigarette companies. Now since there has been such litigation against tobacco companies with regards to cigarettes and cigars and things like that, I think the states and the federal government now realize they have cases they can actually win in regards to this and I think the companies that provide the vaping and things like that realize they don’t have a leg to stand on. I think, as history has developed with regards to harmful nicotine products, it has become easier to fight it to get rid of it.”

Nearly three months later, on Nov. 13, JUUL Labs announced it would be suspending sales of its more “teen-friendly” flavored pods in retail stores, such as crème, mango, cucumber, and fruit medley. However, the company will continue to sell flavors such as mint, menthol and tobacco in stores in an attempt to curb users from going back to menthol cigarettes.

JUUL Labs has also decided to ban sales to anyone under 21. Once retailers invest in an age-verification system, the company said it would resume sales of those products previously banned. Nevertheless, consumers will still be able to purchase all flavors on their website as long as they can prove that they are 21 or older. The company said it will also increase its secret shopping visits in order to more intensely supervise individual retailers from selling to minors.

On top of these newly placed restrictions, the company said it would discontinue its social media promotions by deleting its Facebook and Instagram pages and only using Twitter for “non-promotional” uses. Its YouTube channel will also only be used to show adult smokers’ testimonials for using Juuls. All of these actions were put forth in an effort for lessen the number of teenage users.

Juuling at school? Here’s the damage

As one enters the school building, one of the first things seen is a sign that says “tobacco free zone.” Despite this, one of the most prominent places where students Juul is in school, whether it be in the bathroom or even right under the teachers’ noses.

“We’ve had students to (lie and say it’s a thumb drive),” Principal Tim Albert said. “We’ve had students to actually have them on their desk and let teachers know that they were thumb drives before there was an education piece to it. The teachers believed it and so did I!”

With the rapid increase in Juul users, schools had to scramble to figure out what the products were and what they looked like.

“We use (educating teachers on Juuls) as part of our professional development process at the beginning of the year and during the year to make sure they know what it looks like and what to look for and things of that nature,” Albert said.

Rule 28 of the Dare County Schools Code of Conduct states: “A student may not have or use tobacco products, to include e-cigarettes or e-cigarette products, on school premises, on school bus, at any school function or event.” If a student were to be caught Juuling or being in possession of an e-cigarette, administration springs into action.

“What happens in that situation is the student never gets it back,” Albert said. “We usually call the parent and say we have it if you want to come and get it, and nine times out of 10 the parent says, ‘I don’t want anything to do with it either.’ We just keep it until the end of the year and we destroy them.”

Punishment ranges from in-school supervision to out-of-school suspension depending on each situation and the student’s discipline record.

“I think it needs to be understood that we, as the administrative team or as the faculty and staff, get no pleasure out of confiscating and having to issue some form of punitive action with regards to this,” Albert said. “Our sole purpose for this is to make sure the students realize this is harmful to them and while they’re in this environment – if you want to say they’re in this house, so to speak – they have to follow our rules and the rules are set up to protect them, not to be bad or not to be mean. ‘I have my rights’ and that type of thing, well, no you don’t. You don’t have rights when it comes to this, especially in this building.”

The health risks of hitting that Juul

Juuls are another form of an e-cigarette with a sleek appearance. Skinny, small and easy to hide, they are ideal for minors. Add in the fact that the pods of nicotine one puts into a Juul are prepackaged and come in a variety of flavors, and they seem to be targeted toward younger users.

“It is an attractive alternative to vaping because of the size. It looks like a USB port and you can stick it in your pocket and it’s easier to conceal,” school nurse Robyn Dozier said. “If you make any product easier to do, they’re going to do more of it. Manufacturers and marketing people, I think that was their intent. These big companies want to make money, so they’re going to make it so that it is an attractive product.”

And although the high-tech feel of these e-cigarettes may be appealing, each puff can be harmful to one’s health, and especially harmful if one blows through an entire pod in a day without thinking about the consequences.

“They’re finding that some of the chemicals (in Juuls and vapes) create that popcorn lung,” said Dozier, describing the rare condition that damages the lungs’ smallest airways and causes coughing and shortness of breath. “That’s the main health risk that they’re looking at, not to mention it also creates an addictive behavior.”

With traditional vapes, a user must continuously change the coils and add juice to the vape tank. However, with Juuling, a person can simply go to the store, pay $16 and go, which may be another reason for the increased popularity of Juuls. What most people don’t know, however, is that each prepackaged pod consists of 5 percent nicotine – equivalent to about 20 cigarettes.

“You are putting a tremendous amount of chemicals in your body,” Dozier said. “Technology is delivering it in a way that it doesn’t smell, it’s easy to conceal, your mouth doesn’t taste nasty when you kiss somebody. People are smart and they’re going to find a way to give you the stuff that is bad for you and make you pay for it.”

Because of these marketing techniques, students may find themselves Juuling when there was no intention to pick up a smoking habit in the first place.

“Some students start doing it when they don’t even smoke,” Dozier said. “Now you’re creating a habit that is hard to break.”

Middle and high school students across the country have caught on to this “trend,” with a report by the Surgeon General finding that e-cigarette usage among middle school and high school students has tripled since 2011: 16 percent of high school students and 5 percent of middle school students had reported using an e-cigarette within the last 30 days in the 2015 report, and Juul sales have soared since. Most alarming was that nearly two-thirds of students in the survey did not realize the e-cigarettes contained nicotine.

“The more things you see about it, you realize how harmful it can be to everyone, but especially students because they are naive to it and they think it’s just fun and it’s not nicotine,” Principal Tim Albert said.

In fact, consuming such a large amount of nicotine in a day could prove to be detrimental to one’s health in the future. That’s why such emphasis is being put on letting people know it’s not “cool” to Juul – raising awareness about this national problem could save a life.

“You want to be friends with them now, but you also want to be friends with them in your 30s and 40s, and you’re still alive and they’ve got cancer,” Albert said.

Senior Hannah Ellington can be reached at ellingtonha1214@daretolearn.org.

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This story was written by a former Nighthawk News Magazine staff member who has since graduated from First Flight High School.