What Juul’s Hiding

The e-cigarette company says its products are for adults, but behind the smokescreen is the truth: It’s been after YOU—and your money—all along.

Alex Telfer/Guardian / eyevine/Redux

Imagine you have a school health seminar about addiction. The teachers leave the room so you and your classmates can talk freely with the guest speaker. After the door closes, the speaker tells you he works for Juul. He says Juul’s products are totally safe . . . but the company doesn’t want you using them. After the seminar, you ask about nicotine addiction. The presenter pulls out a Juul pen, shows you how it works, and calls it “the iPhone of vapes.” 

Wait. Didn’t he just say he didn’t want you using a Juul? So why is he now sort of selling you on it?

Two years ago, this happened to Caleb Mintz, then a 16-year-old from New York City. As he listened to the speaker, Caleb couldn’t help but question his motivations. “I believe he was trying to reassure kids that they could use Juul pods without harming themselves,” Caleb says. 

Turns out, Caleb was right. In June, Juul Labs’ marketing ploys sparked a congressional investigation into the company’s role in increased nicotine use by teens. Caleb testified at a congressional hearing in July, and the committee’s research revealed that Juul has been using manipulative tactics to target teens. Not only did it tap social media influencers to promote its products, it also—alarmingly—paid schools for access to students, setting up presentations, a curriculum, and even a summer program for kids. (The person giving Caleb’s seminar was hired by an outside company that provided speakers for the school.) 

Juul called these initiatives “healthy lifestyle” programs, but really, they likely served as recruitment drives for new, young customers who would get hooked on vaping for life. The congressional committee concluded that Juul “deliberately targeted children in order to become the nation’s largest seller of e-cigarettes.” 

In other words: Teens who vape didn’t make that decision entirely on their own. They were intentionally influenced by a major corporation.

Getting Sucked In

Miranda Barnes

“I believe he was trying to reassure kids that they could use Juul pods without harming themselves.” 

—Caleb Mintz, 18

Right about now you might be thinking, “Nope, not me. I’m not that easily manipulated.” But the numbers prove otherwise. Even if you don’t Juul yourself (and we sincerely hope you don’t!), odds are you know someone who does. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), e-cigarette use among high schoolers soared from 220,000 students in 2011 to more than 3 million students in 2018. Statistically, that’s 1 in 5 high schoolers; 1 in 20 middle schoolers vape, too. “I’ve walked into the school bathroom between classes, and someone would just hand me a Juul,” says Camilo Villegas, 18, from Waconia, Minnesota, who recently quit. “I’m like, ‘No, dude, I just actually want to go to the bathroom.’ It’s almost funny, but also sad.”

Even if you’re immune to peer pressure, you’re likely influenced—even subconsciously—by what you see on social media. And companies know it. One Juul memo released by the congressional committee says, “We are aiming for influencers in popular culture with large audiences in various sectors such as music, movies, social, pop media, etc.” Translation: Juul wanted people you admire talking about its product, promoting it, or, say, getting photographed by paparazzi with a Juul sticking out of their pocket.

Last year, when it became obvious that the number of teens Juuling was growing at an alarming rate, Juul shut down its accounts on Instagram and Facebook. Yet, the brand hasn’t been canceled online. “I see people Juuling on all platforms every day,” says Sophia Waxman, 14, from New York City, who has never Juuled and has no plans to start. “On Instagram, posts show up on my Explore page from accounts I don’t even follow.” 

Such a Drag

Manipulating teens to get them to buy harmful products is nothing new. Old-school cigarette companies, known as Big Tobacco, did it for years. In the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, cigarette ads featured images of smoking students wearing graduation caps or cheerleading uniforms. Some ads were designed like comic strips, and one brand even had a cartoon mascot until 1997. 

Today, e-cigarette companies like Juul (which is owned in part by Altria, a Big Tobacco corporation that makes several brands of cigarettes) are borrowing cigarette companies’ old tactics in their ads, packaging, and product design. Juul has always claimed its product is for adults who already smoke cigarettes and want an alternative way to get their nicotine fix—and the company insists adults are still its target market. But even back in 2015, when the Juul pen first came on the market, the company’s ads featured colorful graphics and young models, one of whom could have been tagged as an Ariana Grande wannabe. 

So it’s hard to believe Kevin Burns, the CEO of Juul Labs, who said during a TV interview this summer that he was “sorry” young people used his company’s products and added, “I hope there was nothing that we did that made it appealing to them.” 

THEN: A young model in a cigarette ad from 1993

NOW: A strikingly similar pose in a 2015 Juul ad

Sweet Talk

In fact, Juul didn’t stop at just sneaky advertising practices. It did something else to make its product nearly irresistible to young users—it masked the taste of nicotine with sweet flavors like mango. Again, this is a tactic borrowed from the earlier days of Big Tobacco: For young people who didn’t want to light up, there were plenty of smokeless tobacco products that tasted like candy. 

Last year, Juul announced it would stop selling most flavored pods in stores and added strict age-verification methods online. But some places still carry mango pods, and teens are paying marked-up prices to get them—yet another sign that many of them are hopelessly hooked. 

Shutterstock.com (macbook); Supreme (sweatshirt); Beats Electronics (headphones); Nike (sneakers)

Chemical Attraction

Teens may have been attracted to fruity flavors at first, but that’s not what’s gotten them hooked on their Juuls. Nicotine, the stimulant in Juuls and other e-cigs, is highly addictive, and Juul actually formulated its e-liquid so it contains even more nicotine than competing brands (though many brands have since increased the nicotine in their products). One Juul pod has as much nicotine as a pack of 20 cigarettes. 

What’s the big deal? Nicotine can damage your brain, specifically the parts that control your mood, learning, and attention span, explains Thomas Ylioja, the clinical director of health initiatives at National Jewish Health. 

Plus, research suggests that teens who use e-cigarettes are more likely to smoke real cigarettes in the future. Once nicotine hooks you, your brain wants more, “even at the risk of your own health,” says Ylioja. 

Clearing the Air

The health risks of nicotine are scary enough, but here’s the scariest part: There’s now evidence that vaping may be destroying your lungs. In August, the CDC announced it is investigating more than 450 cases of severe lung illnesses in young adults—all related to e-cigarette use—across 33 states. One 17-year-old vaper in Texas had so much lung damage that he spent 10 days in a medically induced coma, attached to a ventilator so he could breathe. Meanwhile, a recent study found that vaping also changes blood vessels, even if you do it only once. 

Now, some people—like Miami, Florida-based Chance Ammirata, 18—are fighting back. After he wound up in the hospital with a collapsed lung, his doctor told him that the damage was caused by a pre-existing condition that can be exacerbated by the deep inhalations of vaping. He then showed Chance pictures of his lungs, which were covered in tiny black dots—the buildup of chemicals from his Juul habit.

Chance knew he had to quit, immediately. But he was still having “scary” cravings. “When I started Juuling, I really did think it was harmless,” Chance says. “I feel like I got lured into something I did not sign up for.” After Chance posted the pictures of his damaged lungs on social media, he began hearing from young people who said he’d inspired them to quit. “Now I want to help as many people as I can,” he says. 

Chance started the Lung Love Foundation to spread a simple message to e-cig companies like Juul: “We are not just dollar signs.” He’s been filling his Instagram stories with videos he’s received of people smashing their Juuls, and he urges teens to support each other in kicking their habits. “You have the power to take back control of your life,” Chance says. “And when you’re able to do that, it’s so liberating.”

"It's Not Worth It"

Two Philadelphia-area best friends, Lauren, 18, and Emily, 17, open up about how their Juul habits have taken over their lives.

Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Lauren: I started Juuling three years ago. My friends started to get Juuls, and everyone was like, “Try this, try this.” I got it because they said to, basically.

Emily: My friend had one, and I would always rip it. So then I decided, whatever, I’ll buy one. Then I just got hooked. I used to watch vaping videos and see what people did with the smoke, but now I don’t even care. I don’t need to do a trick—I just want the nicotine.

Lauren: Pods are very expensive. All of our parents give us money, and they don’t know we use it to buy them.

Emily: If I’m hanging out with people every night, I’ll be done with a full four-pack of pods in two days. 

Lauren: I always have it on me. If it’s not in my hand, I don’t feel right. That’s what freaks me out. 

Emily: I call my Juul “my left hand.” If I can’t find it, I’m like, “I lost my left hand.” If I’m having a stressful day at school, I’ll go to the bathroom a lot in between classes to use my Juul.

Lauren: I sit in class and put it in my sleeve. You zero it, which means you make no smoke come out.

Emily: You basically swallow it all. It’s so bad for you.

Lauren: By the end of the year, we were doing it so much we wouldn’t really get buzzed anymore. 

Emily: Even then, I wouldn’t leave it at home.

Lauren: I’m addicted. The other day I was talking to my mom about it, and she was just like, “Why can’t you just throw it away?” I was like, “Mom, I need it.” I can’t go two hours without my Juul. I can’t keep spending so much money on it. Obviously, I want to stop, but I can’t.

Emily: Both my brothers call me stupid to my face. And I know I’m stupid. I wish I had never bought one.

Lauren: I want to stop. Honestly, I feel better when I don’t use it. But when I don’t have it, it’s always in the back of my mind, like, “Oh my God, I want a Juul rip.” 

Emily: I tell all young people that getting the Juul was probably my worst mistake. Do not buy one.

Lauren: One, it’s so bad for you. And two, you’re gonna waste all your money. It’s not worth it. 

Update: As our story went to press, Emily contacted us to say that she and all her friends have thrown away their Juuls after hearing about a vaping-related death. Keep up the good work, Lauren and Emily!