It looks like a flash drive, and it plugs into a laptop’s USB port like a flash drive – but it’s not actually a flash drive. Really, it’s the latest trend in electronic cigarettes, and it’s causing a stir in schools across the country.
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Juul is a sleek, black vaping pen that fits in the palm of your hand. Like other top-selling e-cigarettes on the market (including Vuse, Logic, Blu and MarkTen), it comes with little cartridges of “juice” that contain nicotine, fruity flavorings and other chemicals. The cartridges snap into the device, and the juice is heated up when a user inhales, creating a vapor that delivers a quick hit of nicotine — and the pleasant sensation that smoking cigarettes creates, explains pulmonologist Humberto Choi, MD.
But unlike other kinds of e-cigarettes, Juul and the newest class of devices are discreet enough that teenagers are using them in school bathrooms, hallways and even classrooms. They’re small and easy to hide, and the fruity smelling smoke dissipates quickly. Not only has “juuling” become so popular that it’s now a verb, but it’s even inspired a series of social media hashtags.
Though the companies that make these products say they’re intended to be used as alternatives for adult smokers over 21, teenagers are still getting their hands on them. In fact, use among teens is so rampant that the FDA has threatened to pull flavored e-cigarettes off the market if the industry doesn’t take action to prevent it.
Whether or not you suspect your child may be participating or being pressured to, Dr. Choi suggests taking up the subject with your teenagers. “I think it’s important to have the conversation anyway,” he says. “Odds are they will come across a situation where someone is using e-cigarettes or they may be offered to use one.”
Cause for concern
While there’s been a significant drop in youth smoking over the last decade, the use of other tobacco products like e-cigarettes in this age group continues to climb. Youth are taking up e-cigarettes most often because family members or friends use them, or because the juice comes in appealing flavors like mint or fruit, according to a 2016 survey.
In that same survey, 17 percent of middle and high school-aged users also said they turned to e-cigarettes because of the belief that they are less harmful than other forms of tobacco, like cigarettes. But because there are not yet published studies on the long-term safety of e-cigarettes, health experts like Dr. Choi say caution is warranted.
“We know that in the short-term they can cause inflammation in the airways and in the lungs,” he says. “It will take a while until we see the long-term consequences, but our expectation is that they can cause harm similar to smoking cigarettes.”
Because of the attractive design and appealing flavors, young people may not understand that they’re actually taking in high concentrations of nicotine (juices contain up to 5 percent nicotine), which is highly addictive and damaging to brain development.
Experts also worry that teens who use e-cigarettes may be more likely to start smoking tobacco.
E-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco or tar, but they do contain “many other chemicals that can be harmful, sometimes in combination,” Dr. Choi says.
Propylene glycol, for example, is one ingredient. It’s commonly used as a food additive and considered safe for ingestion, but it’s not clear if it’s safe to be inhaled for a prolonged period of time, he explains. “I think the point here is that we cannot consider the aerosols with these chemicals safe when inhaled.”
Talk to your teen
Different people are attracted to e-cigarettes for different reasons, Dr. Choi says, so there’s no one good way to bring up their potential dangers with your kids. But understanding what might motivate them to try, or talking through ways to respond to peer pressure can be a good start.
If you feel like you’re not getting through, ask your doctor to discuss the dangers of smoking and e-cigarettes at your teen’s next appointment.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends that pediatricians screen families and counsel patients about the health risks of e-cigarettes,” Dr. Choi says. “Unfortunately, the increase in the use of e-cigarettes among teenager is so concerning that we need to be more proactive.”