Robert* tightly clutches a small device in his hands as he braces against the brisk weather on a bench outside behind the Center for Environmental and Life Sciences at Montclair State University.
The device, commonly mistaken for a USB flash drive, is easily disregarded by other students until Robert brings it to his lips and inhales deeply from it. Soon after, he blows a white cloud of smoke into the air and is greeted with a sense of relaxation.
The 21-year-old junior computer science major watches as the cloud of vapor vanishes before breathing in from the end of the Juul again. In the air, the lingering smell of mango remains, along with Robert’s urge to satisfy his nicotine addiction.
“The thing about it is that you feel better if you are hitting a Juul all day, even if you are smoking more nicotine than smoking three cigarettes a day,” Robert said. “I just feel better with the Juul. However, in terms of nicotine just by the numbers, I’m probably taking in more.”
A single Juul pod, which is the cartridge that clicks on top of the device, contains up to five percent nicotine. According to the official Juul website, that is the same amount of nicotine that is found in an entire pack of cigarettes. Smokers say it can take them as little as a few days or up to a week or two to go through an entire pod.
It only took two years for the tiny nicotine-filled device to take over the e-cigarette market. It has exploded its way into colleges and high schools around the state, creating worry for parents and health professionals. Just as cigarette use among teenagers was hitting an all-time low, people who have never smoked before are becoming highly addicted to Juuling.
Stanford graduates Adam Bowen and James Monsees founded Juul Labs in 2015. Juul’s website states its intention was to explicitly target cigarette smokers in an attempt to combat addiction. In the short amount of time since being released, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said in a recently issued report that the use of Juuls has quickly reached an epidemic proportion.
With the FDA starting a movement to end teenage vaping, Juul recently released a statement addressing the controversy around their product. On Nov. 13, Juul’s CEO Kevin Burns announced several steps the company plans on taking to help stop the rampant use of their product among young people.
The FDA is pushing to eliminate retail orders for the mango, fruit, creme and cucumber Juul pods to more than 90,000 retail stores that currently sell their products. These flavors will now only be available on JUUL.com where they are adding stricter age-verification steps. By the end of the year, their precautions will include tools, such as two-factor authentications and a real-time photo requirement where a user’s face must match a valid, uploaded ID.
Health advocates fear this may be too little too late. Juuls are being found in the hands mostly of those not in the target audience.
“I never had a cigarette in my life before, but then I happened to like the Juul, so I started doing that,” said senior nutrition major Vanoush Sabbagh. “It was introduced to me by friends, it’s not something I found on my own.”
This habit among young non-smokers has raised an alarm with health workers who fear it threatens to repeat history and create an issue as dangerous and widespread as cigarettes did.
Juuls can be bought at most gas stations or vape stores. At Montclair State, they are sold at over 50 locations within a three mile radius. Users must be 21 to purchase the device along with the pods, but there is no restriction on who can actually smoke it.
Jesse Puno is the owner of Broad Smoke Shop in New Milford, New Jersey, where they sell Juuls for around $30 to $45.
“A lot of the customers that try to buy Juuls are underage and in my opinion it’s all about social acceptance,” Puno said. “Kids want it to feel like they are ‘in.’ Also, the age restriction makes them want it even more.’’
New Milford 7-Eleven employee Jaya Manandhar has seen customers of all ages looking to purchase the device.
“I have seen regular customers that are 30 years old and over switching from cigarettes to Juul,” Manandhar said. “We have found some underage customers trying to buy Juuls, but not many because in this community we know a lot of people. 7-Eleven always checks IDs to make sure that Juuls don’t end up in the hands of underage kids.’’
Despite store owners’ and online vendors’ refusal to sell to those underage, teenagers are still successfully acquiring these devices. The high tech appearance, enticing pod flavors and ease of use are all part of the appeal for teenagers.
As part of Juul’s new plan, they are restricting online customers to two devices and 15 Juul pod packages per month and no more than 10 devices a year.
Emily Moutis, a junior at Parsippany Hills High School, has witnessed the obsession of Juul in her own school. She explains that there are rules against it, but that does little to stop students from smoking their Juuls during class time.
“People smoke secretly, when the teacher turns away or they go into the bathroom,” Moutis said.
Diana DeMottie, a senior at the high school, is often a witness to fellow classmates Juuling in class.
“It’s kind of funny because people will put it up their sleeve and then blow the smoke down their sweatshirt so teachers don’t see it,” DeMottie said. “People do it all the time in the bathroom and in the locker room.”
Alysha Bailey, a junior at Parsippany Hills, is aware that the growing number of Juul users in her high school is an issue.
“People aren’t aware enough of what can really happen to you if you Juul,” Bailey said. “They think it’s harmless.”
With younger generations getting information and being influenced by social media, Juul has gone to the extent of shutting down their U.S.-based social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram. Their Twitter account is now confined to nonpromotional content only.
On YouTube, they have an age restriction only allowing 21+ to access their channel where they will only be posting testimonials of former adult smokers who have switched to their device.
Meanwhile, parents are becoming increasingly worried about the effect that using Juuls have on their children.
Mayra Perez is a concerned mother of two boys ages 15 and 20. The oldest has never smoked before, but the 15-year-old has tried several vaping products, such as Hookah and vape pens. Now, he has moved on to Juul.
Perez discovered her youngest son was using a Juul about a year ago. She said he picked up the habit by hanging out with his friends from school.
Like many other parents, Perez is at a loss at how to get her child to quit this addiction and she does not know what methods to take at this point.
“[I have] thrown out any of those pens that [I have] seen in the house, but he still finds ways to get new ones,” Perez said.
Since Perez’s son is not of legal age to purchase a Juul or pods by himself, he gets his older friends to buy it for him.
“I want him to stop,” Perez said. “But he keeps getting a hand on them wherever he can and it’s worrying me a lot.”
Dr. Marie Cascarano, coordinator of Health Promotion at Montclair State, shares similar concerns.
“Regarding health consequences for Juul, there isn’t a lot of research of information for long-term health risks of inhaling the chemicals nor is there research to support it is ‘safe,’” Cascarano said. “Though it is marketed as a way to reduce or quit cigarette use, it is actually attracting younger kids to begin using.”
Fifty random Montclair State students were surveyed to test their knowledge of Juuls. From those results, 78 percent knew what a Juul was. Half of those students thought it was healthier compared to cigarettes.
Out of all the students that know of Juuls, 48 percent said they were aware one pod is equivalent to about 20 cigarettes. The majority of students knew 21 is the age required to purchase it.
Regardless of age, in accordance with Montclair State’s new smoking policy, the use of electronic smoking devices outside of the designated areas and inside any building is prohibited and against the Student Code of Conduct, which includes Juuls. Many students are unaware that they will face the same consequences as smoking a cigarette if they are using their Juul outside of designated smoking areas.
As a result of this misunderstanding, some students have already been reported to Director of Student Conduct Jerry Collins, who is responsible for handling discipline on campus. While he has seen students who do comply with the university’s new policy, he has had a few encounters with students caught Juuling outside of the designated areas.
Those who do get reported could face suspension from the university.
“I honestly haven’t seen as many people [Juuling] as I thought I would,” said Robert O’Connor, a senior journalism major at Montclair State and entertainment editor at The Montclarion. “But maybe that’s because I don’t do it in the smoking sections where you’re supposed to. No one’s caught me yet.”
A few months ago, O’Connor was gifted a Juul by his friend that knew he wanted to cut back on his cigarette addiction. It proved to be a helpful aid for him to stop smoking so many cigarettes, although now a pack of cigarettes is replaced with a constant Juul in his hand. O’Connor sees his Juul habit as temporary and wants to quit both eventually.
Dominick Sylvester, a Montclair State University alumnus, has successfully quit smoking cigarettes because of Juul. After five years, Sylvester became tired of smelling like smoke and knew too well the danger he was putting his health in but is aware that Juuls are far from healthy.
“It’s a lot better for you than cigarettes but it’s still bad for you regardless and I know that,” Sylvester said. “I know I’m still putting poison into my body.”
He hopes to wean himself off Juuling completely within the next month.
Stephanie Braunlich, Christopher Dean, Chanila German, Cassidy Layton, Katie Leonard, Junior Morel, Margaret Moutis, Diana Ortiz, Anthony Paradiso,Carolina Portillo Cook, Rebecca Serviss, and Kerianne Vianden
* The subject’s last name was omitted due to privacy concerns.