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Up in smoke: Juuls put addiction in UK students' pockets

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Liz Donohoe puffs a cloud from her Juul while posing for a a figure drawing session at the School of Art & Visual Studies on Oct. 2, 2018 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Quinn Foster

If you’ve ever seen a cloud of smoke go up in the middle of a lecture, you’re probably familiar with the Juul.

The popular brand of discreet and sleek e-cigarettes has become a habit in the hands of thousands of college students across the country, and UK students have bought into the trend.

But in the haste of keeping up with the Juul’s rise to stardom, did anyone bother to read the box?

Juuls are marketed as a nicotine alternative for adults who are trying to quit smoking, but some public health professionals are waging a war on the flavored e-cigarettes in an attempt to study potentially adverse health effects they might have on their real users: students.

Some say it’s becoming increasingly impossible to cut ties with their nagging Juuls.

Junior marketing major Evan Dilbeck said he’s owned his Juul for about a year and first decided to buy one after seeing all of his friends using their own, but now he wishes he could leave it behind.

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Keegan Gordon stands in a cloud of smoke from a Juul on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018 on American Ave in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Quinn Foster

“I think it was kind of a fad to start out. Everyone got one, and now everyone is just super addicted,” Dilbeck said. “I’ve tried to quit several times because it’s $16 for a pack of pods, but it’s impossible when everyone around you has one.”

Nielsen data shows that Juul Labs sold almost $1.3 billion worth of Juul kits and accompanying pods from August 2017 to August 2018, which was more than half of the entire market share for e-cigarette products during that time frame. So it’s safe to say the Juul has been a hit.

Aside from their sheer popularity, there might be a scientific reason why Dilbeck and the rest of UK’s Juul owners can’t seem to put the e-cigarettes down.

Tobacco treatment specialist and UK Associate Professor of Nursing Audrey Darville said that the key to the Juul’s recent success and its addictiveness is thanks in part to the chemistry behind its pods.

According to Juul Labs, the e-cigarette’s manufacturer, a single disposable Juul pod, which comes in enticing flavors like mint, crème brulee and mango, contains roughly the same amount of nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes.

“The company manufacturing Juuls has figured out how to deliver more nicotine effectively,” said Darville.

Unlike other e-cigarettes, Juuls pack a punch comparable to traditional cigarettes. A hit from a Juul gives the body a jolt of nicotine at similar speeds to that of a cigarette, according to Darville. She said this almost-instantaneous rush is what makes the Juul so appealing.

But while Juuls may outshine older model e-cigarettes, they still aren’t as efficient as traditional cigarettes, which may explain their addictiveness, according to Darville.

Because they aren’t as efficient with their nicotine distribution, e-cigarettes like Juuls promote continuous use, according to Darville. While a traditional smoker might light up every hour or so, an electronic smoker is more likely to habitually use their e-cigarette throughout the day.

Considering how much is still unknown about the long term health effects of Juuls and other e-cigarettes, this level of habitual use is cause for concern among some of the nation’s top public health officials.

“That’s the problem. We don’t know the 10-year effects,” said Darville. “People using electronic smoking devices, and especially Juuls, they’re the human lab.”

She said information about the Juuls is coming through scientific evaluation— “but we all know that’s like the tortoise and the hare,” she said.

The thought of being a walking lab rat might come as a surprise to the students who find themselves replenishing their Juul pod supplies weekly. Most say they never contemplated getting addicted before picking up their own Juuls.

“People are already addicted,” said UK junior Jackson Gilbert. “For a lot of them, I feel like it was their first experience. That’s how it was for me… I’ve never done cigarettes or anything like that.”

Health officials say the Juul’s potency is enough to sneak up on those who let their guard down.

“I don’t think people really, truly appreciate how addictive nicotine is,” Darville said. “That’s the hook… Once you become dependent on nicotine, it can be challenging to get off of it.”

And that seems to be the sentiment among UK’s vaping population: It’s hard to stop.

That’s why the Food and Drug Administration recently launched an all-out assault on e-cigarettes in an attempt to keep them out of the hands of the “epidemic proportion” of minors who are becoming addicted.

In April 2018 the FDA announced a nationwide blitz to crack down on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors at both brick-and-mortar and online retailers. This came after FDA compliance checks uncovered 40 violations for illegal sales of Juul products to youth, one of which came from a local Lexington gas station.

As part of their efforts to curb e-cigarette use among minors, the FDA also demanded that Juul Labs turn over pertinent documents related to its marketing strategy and youth appeal in its products.

“The new and highly disturbing data we have on youth use demonstrates plainly that e-cigarettes are creating an epidemic of regular nicotine use among teens,” said a statement from the FDA. “It is vital that we take action to understand and address the particular appeal of, and ease of access to, these products among kids.”

While Juul Labs claims it turned over 50,000 pages of documents to the FDA after its April request, the FDA recently followed up with a surprise inspection of the company’s headquarters on Oct. 2. The FDA announced it seized more than a thousand documents from Juul Labs that were relative to the company’s marketing practices.

Juul Labs says it is committed to working with the FDA to eradicate youth use of e-cigarettes.

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Adam Harter takes a hit of a Juul while entertained by a UK Football game against Florida on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 on Burley Ave in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Quinn Foster

“We are committed to preventing underage use, and we want to engage with FDA, lawmakers, public health advocates and others to keep JUUL out of the hands of young people,” said Juul Labs Chief Executive Officer Kevin Burns.

Juul Labs has also pledged to establish its own youth prevention campaign with the help of a $30 million investment intended fund youth education and independent research. But while the gesture of a $30 million investment sounds promising, some public health officials say they’re still not buying it.

“That’s pocket change to them, but they make it sound so wonderful,” said Darville.

While the FDA is doing its best to stymie new students from picking up Juuls, that doesn’t give much help to those who have already succumb to its addictiveness.

But there are some resources available at UK for those who are hoping to set their Juuls down for good.

Darville recommended that students who want to ditch their Juuls visit the UK Counseling Center for help with tobacco cessation, or even Student Health where students might be eligible for nicotine replacement therapy.

If you find yourself clinging to your Juul on campus, there might be some bad news around the corner. Juuling is actually outlawed on campus under UK’s Tobacco-free policy.

Any students who are found to be juuling on campus may even be subjected to corrective action like community service in accordance with student conduct regulations.

But while public health officials and university leaders continue to keep a watchful eye on the Juul, UK’s students say there really isn’t much they can do.

With a firm grasp on his own Juul, Dilbeck only had one thing left to say.

“All I can say is ‘Bro, can I hit your Juul?’”