Head in the Clouds: What's Up With Juuls?


Illustration by Maddie Ligenza This story appears in the November 2017 issue of Jerk Magazine. It was written by Hayley Greason.

I can barely hear my friends talking amidst the noises of yelling, music, and glass bottles smashing on the parking lot. A string of girls shove past me as if they’re heading somewhere important. Directly above the buzzing sea of orange-clad, drunk college students I see multiple clouds of vapor dissipating as quickly as they appear.

“What’s that?” I ask, pointing to the small, black e-cigarette a tailgater is clutching in his hand as if it’s his lifeline. I’m immediately offered a hit, and I politely decline. “It’s like a Juul, but cheaper,” he says.

What surprisingly stuck with me long after that brief conversation on a sunny day at a ‘Cuse tailgate, was that he assumed I knew what a Juul was. It was the first time I realized this product had become a part of everyday college lingo and life. In other words, if you don’t know what a Juul is as a young adult, you must be living under a rock.

E-cigarettes in general have increased in popularity among young people. The Center for Disease Control published that about 11.3 percent of high school students used electronic cigarettes in the past 30 days—an increase from 1.5 percent in 2011.

The Juul specifically seems to be leading the new craze. It was released in 2015 as the first “attractive alternative to cigarettes” by two industrial designers and smokers named James Monsees and Adam Bowen. Reviews dubbed the Juul “the Apple of e-cigs” with its revolutionary design and user-friendly interface. From the start, the Juul had a clear marketing code: for adult smokers trying to quit. This isn’t something to applaud or appreciate, because regardless of its meticulously careful marketing code, the product clearly caters and appeals to non-smoking youth.

For starters, it looks like a damn USB thumb drive. A kid can walk into his or her high school classroom, Juul in hand, and put it on his or her desk, without one word from the teacher. And even if adults realize what it is, it’s sleekness and evaporating vapor allow teens to sneak a quick hit, say, in the sleeve of their hoodies on a bathroom break.

And then there’s the Juul’s pods’— which come in wonderful yummy flavors that the company calls “juice”: mango, cool mint, Virginia tobacco, fruit medley and creme brûlée. The goal in the design of the Juul, like any marketing tactic, is to show a product that is cool to own and use.

For those who say they only vape when they’re drunk, you’ll be surprised to know that vaping exists outside of the college party scene. Bird Library has the occasional ‘vaper’ that uses the buzz to stay calm, focus and get shit done. Those people most likely started vaping at parties, too.

Maybe nicotine vapor is a healthier alternative to cigarettes, which have been on the decline in recent years. In 2016, the CDC report stated that eight of every 100 high school students said they smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days—a decrease from 15.8 percent in 2011. The cause of this decline could be because of the rise in popularity of e-cigs.

Everyone agrees that tobacco is bad for you; it’s scientifically proven to contain carcinogens and have addictive qualities. Liquid nicotine, however, can't be deemed as “healthier” or better, and that is simply because there is very little science and research out there about liquid nicotine, and especially Juul pods.

Wired’s product review of Juul when it first came out in 2015 explained how the nicotine in Juul pods were supposedly “better.” R&D engineer for Juul Ari Atkins said, "In the tobacco plant, there are these organic acids that occur naturally. And they help stabilize the nicotine in such a way that makes it … appropriate for inhalation.” Apparently, these acids usually get destroyed in the making of liquid nicotine, which makes the inhaling the vapor incomparable to the experience of smoking. Juul has claimed to preserve these organic, naturally-occurring acids to make the hit similar to that of a cigarette, and they call them “nicotine salts.” Sounds great, right?

Well I hate to be a buzzkill, but the Juul isn’t all the hype it’s made out to be. Instead of weaning generations off of tobacco, e-cigs are turning them towards it. It might be “the Apple of e-cigs”, but it’s still an e-cig. Jury’s still out on whether or not it’s actually a better alternative to cigarettes like they’re marketed to be. The next time you’re at a tailgate and you’re about to say yes to a hit, maybe keep that in mind.