Broward College student Erika Garcia reaches for what looks to be a flash drive, slipping it nonchalantly into her mouth while simultaneously pulling up the hood of her sweatshirt. From a distance, the device she's holding looks like an elongated USB drive or a stocky pen. The 20-year-old puffs discreetly on the vape pen's mango-flavored nicotine before dropping it back into her pocket and heading to her next class.
Garcia was 19 when she first began "Juuling": using a popular rechargeable e-cigarette. “I had a friend who owned a Juul. I used hers once, and I liked the feeling it gave me.” Now 20, it’s been a year since Garcia first tried the popular vaping device. But she already expresses her regret for having ever started.
“I kind of wish I never tried it,” says the college undergrad, “because I’m a year deep into using it and it’s a really costly habit.” A Juul starter kit can run a new user $34 to $49 on the company's website, with replacement four-packs of Juul pods costing $15. Each Juul pod lasts about 200 puffs and contains about the same amount of nicotine as a pack of traditional cigarettes.
Still, Garcia acknowledges the mass appeal of the small, discreet e-cig that has exploded onto the market, and particularly, among her young peers. “It's grown really popular with teens and young adults because I think people just think they look or feel “cool” while doing it.” Speaking from personal experience, she discredits this perception. “[It's] so absurd to me, because there’s nothing cool about [having] a nicotine addiction at an early age.”
Earlier this week, the FDA launched a new anti-vaping campaign aimed at minors, following last week’s statement in which the federal agency classified the underage use of electronic cigarettes to have reached levels of “epic proportions.” More than 1,100 warning letters are also on their way to retailers across the nation as a response to a surge in excessive e-cigarette consumption among people under 18.
Juul Labs, the largest merchant of e-cigs, accounts for more than 72% of the market and is valued at $16 billion. Even in the face of ongoing lawsuits and state investigations, this number is on the rise. Now, the FDA is cracking down on the maker behind the e-cig craze. Not only did the agency investigate the brand’s multi-million dollar marketing campaigns back in April (which is yet to wield any results), but they want Juul Labs to explicitly demonstrate that they’re not encouraging retail underage purchase of their product. If they fail to do so over the next 60 days, the start-up company risks having its products removed from the market. They could also face legal charges.
Victoria Davis, Juul Lab's Media Relations & Communications representative, told New Times that Juul is intended for adult smokers only. "We cannot be more emphatic on this point: no minor or non-nicotine user should ever try Juul." She says the company has taken measures to curb teen use of Juul, from restricting online age-related purchases, launching parental education campaigns to modifying social media to reflect adult smokers only and working with Facebook and Instagram to remove accounts that promote the product for young people.
But the company has been criticized in the past for using social media influencers and taste-makers to appeal to young potential users. Mike Patel, owner of Smokey News, a vape shop in Fort Lauderdale, says the brand's popularity comes down to its “advertising, the device itself being small, [and] the flavors that they have." His theory is that underage kids aren’t getting Juul from specialty smoke shops like his, but from liquor stores where cashiers don’t check ID. Or, Patel says, they are merely recruiting someone older to buy it for them.
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A Broward County senior, who did not wish to be identified by name, says he has friends who Juul “all the time.” He adds that the bathrooms on campus have become meeting places for young smokers, where “people charge their Juuls, sell Juul pods.” He adds that he was personally unaware of all the negative press surrounding the device. "It’s supposed to be considered healthier than a cigarette – I don’t know if that’s accurate or not, that’s just what people always say.”
Nick Van Der Linden, Interim Communications Director at Florida’s Department of Health, references the latest available 2016 Florida Youth Tobacco survey results to illustrate the cause for concern. “Among youth in Broward County, 23.1% report ever trying an e-cigarette (vaping) in 2016 which is an increase from 10.4% in 2014. Broward County youth who are current users of e-cigarettes (vaping devices) increased from 4.4% in 2014 to 9.1% in 2016.”
Linden says state program Tobacco Free Florida plans to counter-market in response to the increasing number of young smokers in the state, citing the student-centered SWAT (Students Working Against Tobacco) as an example. “The Broward County School District currently has a comprehensive tobacco-free school policy inclusive of e-cigarettes,” he says.
Garcia says that there was a time when she would "fiend" for her vape's nicotine high. But she says she's confident that she can quit what she now calls a "useless habit." She adds, “I never smoked cigarettes, so there was no need for me to start using it.”