Told Between Puffs
The rise and fall of the Juul.
By Hailey Ryan
Warning: This article contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.
Over the course of a balmy October week, I sat down with some of my favorite nicotine addicts to discuss their relationship to vaping. I spent a lot of time that week at Columbia Smoke Shop Inc., a storefront on 108th and Amsterdam that is, surprisingly, not affiliated with the University but is, unsurprisingly, feeding the nicotine addictions of our nation’s brightest. At the start of each interview, I pulled a cool mint Puff Bar out of its sleek, technicolor packaging, brought it to my mouth, and slowly inhaled. I’d bought this one, I told myself, for journalistic purposes alone. For the article. As the toxins entered my body, I reassured myself that if I did find myself addicted to nicotine again, at least it was in exercise of my First Amendment rights.
When the interviews began, nothing but silence, white clouds, and the lingering scent of artificial sweeteners filled the room. This was a feeling I knew all too well: the seductive first inhale, the intoxicating head rush, the tingle of guilt. As their name suggests, e-cigarettes have a confused, hyphenated existence; they re-iterate an older, supposedly more destructive vice. In the end, they are still cigarettes, but updated and rebranded. Cigarettes, flavorized.
Before these thoughts could leave my mind, I was taking another hit. And then another, in preparation for my interview. And then another, interrupted by a conversation that only made me want to take another hit. As cool-ice-scented thoughts rushed through my mind, I couldn't help but ask myself: Why am I doing this?
The inheritance of vice.
The concept of e-cigarette was first introduced in 2003 by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik, who patented a device that used a heating device to vaporize liquid nicotine. Soon after, Stanford graduates James Monsees and Adam Bowen invented the Pax, a device that allowed users to vaporize marijuana or tobacco. Pax Labs immediately took the market by storm; the company raised $46.7 million in series-C funding. Pax Labs’ financial success, in turn, inspired the invention of the Juul, a device designed for “adult smokers looking for an alternative to traditional cigarettes,” according to Juul’s website. Smokers themselves, Monsees and Bowen were the first to satisfy their nicotine addictions without the carcinogenic tar that makes cigarettes lethal. They discovered that by combining nicotine salts with benzoic acid, they could administer the same immediate and satisfying rush that cigarettes supply, but without the laundry list of toxic ingredients. A Juul contains but five ingredients: nicotine, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerine, benzoic acid, and flavoring.
The Juul also introduced the element of choice to the smoking experience. The company encourages consumers to decide between nicotine strength—either 3% or 5%—and between flavors—mint, mango, creme, tobacco, menthol, fruit, Virginia tobacco, and cucumber. Juuls are sleeker, tastier, and, most importantly, healthier than cigarettes. At times, this makes it easy to forget that Juuls only perpetuate the American nicotine addiction crisis—as of last year, nearly 40 million adults and 4.7 million middle and high school students smoke nicotine products, according to a 2020 CDC study.
Millennials and Gen Z-ers have thus ended up adopting, even embracing, the very addiction we grew up learning, from government-funded health class and graphic TV commercials, was the ultimate sin. E-cigarettes are bewitchingly inconspicuous—they smell more of perfume than of garbage, taste more like candy than like tar, and look more like pens than like drugs. They package the toxic substance so sleekly, so satisfyingly, it’s hard not to fall for the ruse.
For many college-aged people, the rise of the Juul in 2017 was a time of youthful jouissance and ignorance. Every young addict can recall the first time they vaped. One Barnard senior, who requested anonymity, fondly remembers hitting her younger brother’s Juul for the first time in 2017, kickstarting her affair with nicotine as a high school junior. “I enjoyed it because I loved mango pods. I just kept getting mango pods and kept on doing it.”
She couldn’t help but beam when recalling her first Juul, which her best friend had carved his name into. From then on, the metallic machine felt like an extension of her friend and the memories they shared. It’s as if her relationship to her Juul has more to do with the rituals surrounding it than the drugs it delivers. In fact, it wasn’t until I directly asked if she was addicted to her Juul (which she recently quit, only to buy a Myle disposable vape), that the concept of addiction even crossed her mind.
“I feel like maybe I’m trying to trick myself by saying it’s not an addiction, so it’s not as scary, but maybe it is an addiction.” She took a hit of her grape-flavored Myle. “Because why would I have that internal urge if I was never addicted to it?”
“Could I take a hit?” I asked. I couldn’t help myself. We exchanged vapes, smiling at each other in between puffs.
The spectre of the Juul.
The Juul era’s untarnished veneer abruptly crumbled when upper-middle-class parents and politicians joined forces to crack down on Juul Labs in the beginning of 2019. Suddenly, the public narrative surrounding e-cigs shifted: The company was no longer seen as offering safe and innovative alternatives to cigarettes for adult smokers in the process of quitting. Indeed, ultimately, Juul Labs needed a sustainable market, unlike the aging addicts of the cigarette years, and found one in our generation. What originally sold as a temporary palliative for older smokers became the engine behind a new epidemic among impressionable youth, stylish but just as devilish as Big Tobacco.
The effects of this narrative shift reverberated across the country. Suddenly, parents everywhere sat their grown children down and interrogated them until they admitted that they, too, had been hooked. My mother called me in distress, begging me to stay away from the now-notorious nicotine stick to protect my asthmatic lungs.
“I feel like by my sophomore year, it was becoming increasingly embarrassing to own a Juul,” explained another vaper in the senior class. At this point, Columbia students had ceased sneaking hits down their shirts during lectures and sharing puffs in line for the bathroom at Amity. Some took to their Snapchat stories to document a new Juul ritual: ceremonially throwing away their pods. A girl I met at a bar constructed a shadow box for her Juul that now collects dust on her mantel. Another smashed his Juul with a hammer, sprinkling the stannic pieces and mangled wires along the Hudson. My best friend and I made a pact to hold each other accountable, pledging to never buy a Juul again. We were in mourning, lamenting the loss of our collective and ever-so-intoxicating delusion.
The ersatz Juul.
In October 2019, the efforts of local and federal legislatures, anti-Juul advocates, and the FDA to combat the youth nicotine epidemic came to a verdict: Juuls were found guilty and officially taken off the market. Anyone who has taken Economics 101 could tell you what happened next. While Juul Labs was busy fending off a fusillade from suburban moms in a series of legal battles, entrepreneurs, opportunists, and disappointed vapers took advantage of this gap in the market, felt by the 11 million Juulers now scrambling to get their sweet nicotine fix.
Companies like Puff Bar, Myle, and Stix found a loophole in the laws regulating Juuls that allows fun flavors to persist if sold as one-time-use, disposable vapes—spawning an entirely new genre of nicotine addiction. One bar, at around $11, can contain as much nicotine as two or three packs of cigarettes, the concentration cut by the shrill sweetness of the taste. When disposables last most users no more than a couple of days, vapers end up inhaling the equivalent of multiple cigarette packs a week.
Juuls may have disappeared, but the addictions haven’t. “Juul regulation of mango pods helped people stop Juuling, but then people just switched to disposable vapes. I’ve seen a lot of underclassmen holding disposable vapes. It’s like they toned down the flavors with Juul and it’s popularity then died down with the younger generation,” explained an anonymous student vaper.
Today, disposable vapes dominate the market, and sales have doubled since 2019. I chatted with Ali, the store manager of a local smoke shop, about purchasing trends over the last couple of years. He explained that since the ban on flavored Juuls in 2019, disposable vapes have become his most popular product and the store’s primary source of revenue. When Governor Cuomo banned flavored disposable vapes in New York State in May 2020, it threatened the livelihoods of bodega owners like Ali all over the state. But because flavored disposable vapes remain available for purchase online and in other states, some shop owners continue to sell them illegally, keeping them hidden beneath the counter. In fact, fun-flavored disposable nicotine products are so accessible that few people even know they’re breaking the law in purchasing them. Despite their illegality, the products remain the number one seller at many local smoke shops.
I left my conversation with Ali shocked. Ultimately, disposable vapes are nothing more than ersatz Juuls, both worse for the environment and for our bodies—so how can they remain so popular? I took an investigative hit of my quickly-dying Puff Bar, and asked myself: How is this justified?
The admission of addiction.
“I feel like it tricks you into thinking that you’re not doing as much harm to your body, in terms of having an addiction, because it is temporary,” explained the same anonymous senior at Barnard. Unlike owning a Juul, which is embarrassingly permanent, disposable vapes, after delivering the same satisfying rush, can be dismissed as mere phases, drunken mistakes, party favors, even. It’s this that keeps us coming back to them, the way they let us throw away our shame.
Another student vaper admitted, “Any attempt to quit has always been: I leave my Juul at home and then scrape by with disposables until I go back. It happens every time.”
On the surface, disposable vapes perfectly suit this generation: nicotine addicts with commitment issues. But more than that, they are the result of failed legislation. Juul regulations sought to save a generation of young people from the nicotine addiction of our parent’s generation amidst a dearth of long-term studies on the health impact of e-cigarettes. To a certain extent, the government was successful: This year, 11.3% of high schoolers reported that they currently vape, down from 27.5% in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While fewer teens are taking up e-cig smoking today, this has little bearing on the already addicted. Instead of eliminating youth nicotine addiction by regulating its most eminent distributor, the legislation has young people going to local smoke shops and offering cashiers upwards of $50 for one mint Juul pod and buying unregulated, counterfeit disposable vapes beneath shop counters. The law didn’t eliminate e-cigarettes—it only forced suppliers and customers to be more creative.
But as a former-ish vaper myself, it seems reductive to understand the disposable vape phenomenon as merely continuing the same strand of addiction. An addiction is something that is both chemically and socially wrong. With cigarettes, smokers must step outside to display their sin, to inhale a destresser that is fittingly crude and undeniably destructive. Disposable vapes are confusingly colorful and uncomfortably cute—a strangely stylish way to sustain the habit.
The extent of their destructiveness is also unclear. With no studies on the long-term health impacts of the e-cigarettes and counterfeit vapes flooding the market, every puff is a gamble. It’s suitably nihilistic for a generation defined by acute anxiety for our quickly dying planet and increasing resignation to imminent doom. More than an addiction, throwaway vapes are an admission— that the government regulation failed us and that we have irreversibly failed our environment. We’re a generation already hooked, hurtling in a direction we inherited from generations past. Ours is a chemical romance made in our image: Insta-worthy, unsustainable, and uncertain.
I took one last ceremonial hit of my Puff Bar before the lights flashed, signaling that it was dead. Maybe this time around, I’ll actually quit. Or, better yet, maybe I’ll buy a Juul.