On Tuesday, CNBC reported the Food and Drug Administration had recently seized thousands of pages of documents from Juul Labs, the San Francisco-based parent company of electronic cigarette Juul. The effort is part of an ongoing crackdown on Juul and other e-cigarettes, which have experienced a meteoric rise in popularity among underage users.
Juul, the rectangular-shaped, battery-powered cigarette, has taken over schools across the nation. According to a survey by the Truth Initiative, nearly one-fifth of middle school and high school students report having seen a Juul used at school. The trend has become so popular, it’s even earned its own verb: “Juuling.” But despite its success, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb called the trend of using Juul and e-cigarettes an “epidemic” largely affecting kids, and doctors remain worried about its under-researched health effects.
Why has Juul in particular stirred up so much controversy in so short a time? We take a look at what exactly Juul is, how it managed to captivate young audiences and why the FDA is cracking down on its use.
Juul signage at a local store notes the device’s nicotine content. Scott Olson/Getty Images
Contrary to traditional cigarettes, electronic cigarettes don’t contain tobacco. Instead, they have “e-liquids” with the stimulant nicotine in them. (Tobacco naturally contains nicotine). Though there are no long-term studies definitively proving that vaping or electronic smoking is “healthier” than traditional smoking, a 2018 study found that vape smoking often resulted in the inhalation of smaller concentrations of toxic substances, suggesting e-cigs may be a less harmful alternative.
While smoking traditional cigarettes has declined among children and young adults over the past few decades, the e-cigarette market, which includes vape pens, has steadily grown, according to a reportby the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rise is driven by factors like marketing tactics aimed at younger audiences, the widespread availability of products and overall price.
Pax Labs (which launched its spin-off, Juul Labs, in 2017) launched Juul in 2015 — designed to “modernize” smoking with its sleek design, which looks similar to a USB flash drive. Each Juulpod, a term for its replaceable cartridge, contains a “proprietary e-liquid formula,” according to Juul’s website, which has benzoic acid, an acid found in tobacco plants, and nicotine content. Customers can purchase Juulpods in 3% or 5% nicotine content, with each pod intended to last around 200 puffs. The e-liquid in a pod is heated using Juul’s metal coil, providing Juul smokers the ability to inhale its vapor. Since 2015, Juul has dominated the electronic cigaretteindustry, effectively cornering the youth tobacco market.