The Juul, a hard plastic gesture toward a cigarette, has so thoroughly succeeded in reintroducing American teens to nicotine that, this summer, Congress hauled its maker into the chambers of the House Oversight Committee. Juul Labs CEO Kevin Burns, a career businessman with a wide face and a frenetic hairline, faced accusations of several misdeeds, including paying influencers on social media to make vaping a cultural phenomenon and targeting Native American tribes for early sale. “The surge of e-cigarette use caught nearly everyone off guard,” said Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (IL-08) during the hearing. “How did we get here?”
I graduated high school in 2017 and remember only a handful of people in my grade Juuling in the bathroom, toward the end of senior year. It was almost embarrassing to be seen vaping then: If you want nicotine, why not smoke cigarettes like a big kid? But in the year between my high school graduation and the end of my first year of college, one-and-a-half million teenagers developed e-cigarette addictions, and addiction rates rose by 78 percent.
Carlos Z., a high school junior from South Carolina and my friend’s little brother, recently managed to kick his nicotine addiction after a year in which he smoked a pod a day, which, in terms of nicotine intake, is roughly equivalent to a pack-a-day habit. “I used to smoke from anything I could get my hands on,” he said, which included the Juul and its cheaper cousin, the Suorin Air. “Honestly, over here, the culture is that if you don’t Juul, you stand out.”
Now, more than one in five high schoolers use e-cigarettes (and one in 20 middle schoolers do the same), and the practice has sparked the rumblings of a moral panic: videos are going mildly viral of young adults trying to abstain from nicotine and make the “Quit the Juul Challenge” a thing; posters on my high school’s walls are alerting students that they are “TOO COOL TO JUUL”; and, of course, news outlets, Facebooking parents, and university administrators alike are spreading the story that at least 450 people have fallen ill with a Juul-related pulmonary condition, and six are dead.
The Juul is often compared in appearance to a flash drive, and its slight shape is key to its appeal. It doesn’t look anything like a cigarette. It doesn’t smell like tobacco, either, and it generates no heat and needs no flame. It gives you a strong hit, too, since Juuls’ e-liquid contains 5.9 percent nicotine by volume, which is nearly three times stronger than would be allowed in Europe. You can Juul on the bus, on the toilet, in your bed and in the car. If you pull your sweatshirt sleeves over the device in your palm, you can Juul in class if you make sure to breathe the vapor back into your shirt. You can charge your Juul by sticking it into your computer, and you can buy pods at any gas station (and underage kids know who will sell without asking for ID).
All of this means that you can hit your Juul all the time, and you will want to hit your Juul all the time, because it feels good and casual. It enables a turbo-charged nicotine habit, frantic and constant and thoughtless, which makes the Juul one of the many creations thrust upon our generation that promise endless gratification, unprecedented addiction, and deep ruin to the mind and body.
“Juuls are like a fifth limb,” said L., a junior at Yale who, like her friends, only spoke about Juuling on the condition of anonymity. She’s a regular cigarette smoker who got hooked on Marlboro Reds during her first year here, and she has never wanted to purchase a Juul of her own. “I choose to smoke. You don’t choose to Juul. It’s unconscious.”
Her friend, A., was hitting his mint Juul as we spoke. The only nicotine he’d ingested before coming to college was through smoking a cigarette or two in high school, and he was generally opposed to nicotine. But at Yale he met people at parties who Juuled and would let him take hits. At a certain point, he says, he decided to “not be a leech,” and by the end of his first semester he owned a Juul of his own.
The third member of their friend group, R., had a similar experience. In Dallas, where he grew up, only two stores sold Juuls during his senior year of high school, so he and his friends would drive forty-five minutes to buy pods. It was a social thing there, as it is here; R. and A. agreed that asking to hit someone’s Juul offered them something to do at awkward parties. Still, R. decided to quit his Juul in college, and left it at home when he moved to Connecticut. Alas: “I went to one party and it was over.” After two days at school, he bought a new Juul, and used it all through his first year.
L. and A. passed the Juul back and forth as we spoke. R., a year off nicotine, abstained. (At one point, A. reached for the device before L. had finished her hit and she smacked away his hand.) There wasn’t much to the action. They put their lips to the square end of the stick and sucked in, wincing a bit at the burn, and pretty quickly released an opaque cloud of that who-knows-what which we assume is vapor. I had seen L. smoke cigarettes often, an action which always involved her rummaging through her purse for her pack, pulling out a cigarette and putting it to her mouth, trying to get the lighter to work, and taking a deep drag, letting the pungent smoke float out of her mouth and rise above and around her. The Juul, instead, was clean, automated: in, out, in, out, on and on.
This perception — that cigarettes are earthy, adult — works to the advantage of the tobacco companies. We might see some advertising in the near future that hammers home this point. A. commented, in fact, on the dynamics of our current moment, when e-cigarettes have culturally replaced actual cigarettes as the most pressing Danger To Our Children.
He told a story about Juuling one night at Partners, the oldest gay bar in New Haven, where he was approached by someone he vaguely knew. In his retelling, she asked him if he was Juuling in a way that I imagine someone might approach a person they caught masturbating in a park. He blew his Juul emissions in her face, and laughed when he told me the punchline to the story: “And that bitch chain-smokes cigarettes!”
No one who lit up a cigarette inside of Partners would be allowed to stay inside for long enough to take one drag. But because Juuls are so portable and new, and thought to be so clean, they can be used in almost any space (although Yale updated its tobacco-free policy to include e-cigarettes, which are ostensibly tobacco-free). R. and A., both gay men, explained that Juuls play a role in hookup culture, that “Juuls are conducive to dancefloor makeouts,” in A.’s words, because it’s sexy to inhale the maybe-vapor and blow it into your hookup’s mouth. L., whose boyfriend goes through almost two Juul pods a day, agreed, in her cuffed way: “We Juul after sex.”
Mainly, though, Juuls work so well not because people need them to hook up or because Juuling looks particularly cool, but because Juuls induce the same chemical reaction as any nicotine delivery product does: the hit stimulates the reward receptors in your brain, which means your brain gets anxious when it isn’t being worked on in that way, making you take a hit to relieve the anxiety. For heavy users, this little cycle repeats hundreds of times a day.
“It makes me feel good for a second when I Juul,” said A.
There are, of course, other substances to smoke that relieve anxiety. As the staunchly anti-Juul Ale Canales, BK ’20, pointed out to me, “Smoking doesn’t do anything for you. You don’t get high. If I’m going to put effort into ruining my lungs, I’d like to get high, at least.”
“Juuling is just fucking dumb,” they added. “It’s the nicotine industry finding another way to murder children. It’s capitalism with addiction with no viable benefits, like you’re maybe getting stress relief, but just fucking jack off.”
On this last point, Juulers and non-Juulers alike agree: in this early autumn of climate strikes and recession warnings and plastic cigarettes, we’re all getting fucked by capitalism.
“It just shows how America is run by corporations,” A. said. After all, we were going to be the last generation to smoke. It was going to be glorious, the culmination of decades of hard-fought legal, political, and cultural victories. And then, one day, someone handed someone a glorified USB drive that tasted like cucumber and gave them a head rush, and from there spread an epidemic.
“This is Big Tobacco getting a handle on you,” he said between sucks from the stick, “starting you off with flavors and moving you to tobacco.”
R. jumped in. “I’m curious to see what happens to all of us,” he said, “when we’re fifty and dropping dead of some weird shit.”