A strange smell in her eldest son’s basement bedroom first alerted Samantha that her kids were using Juuls, a high-nicotine e-cigarette. Not that at that time she knew what they were.
Her freshman son was home for the summer and there was a sweet smell in his bedroom akin to pipe tobacco. He jokingly questioned her sanity when she asked him about it.
Several weeks later she found an empty packet in the garbage she didn’t recognize, which he also denied knowledge of. It was packaging for JUUL, an e-cigarette that resembles a USB flash drive. Unlike other e-cigarettes, JUULs don’t release clouds of white vapor, so users can inhale hits of nicotine without necessarily being detected.
After her son admitted to “JUULling,” he told her that it helped him with his anxiety. Concerned her youngest son, a 15-year-old athlete, might also be JUULing, she went through the ninth-grader’s bag and found a scuffed-up, “tiny little USB charger,” which she only recognized from her experiences with her eldest. Her youngest had purchased it from a male youth on Snapchat, from whom he was also buying refillable pods, but wouldn’t “narc” on the seller, she says.
“My goal for sharing my story is to make parents aware of this particular device,” Samantha says. “It’s made to be discrete and I believe they were designed that way to get kids addicted when they are 13 or 14.”
If so, it seems to be working. According to figures from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), from 2017 to 2018 there was a 78 percent increase among high school students using e-cigarettes. Usage jumped from 11.7 percent to 20.8 percent.
In Utah, according to the 2017 Sharp Survey, 32.1 percent of 12th graders tried an e-cigarette that year, with just over 18 percent of all grades in Utah the same year self-reporting they had vaped. “That’s almost one in five,” says DeAnn Kettenring, health commissioner at the Utah PTA. “And I bet it’s higher than that.”
As a parent struggling to keep in the loop of how technology is impacting her children, Samantha says, “I feel like an idiot. Even though I knew about vaping, I’d never seen one of those. That two of my kids are doing this within months of each other,” suggests to her that, as the CDC has acknowledged, there’s an epidemic of e-cigarette usage among teenagers and America’s youth.
Samantha’s story is painfully familiar to Kettenring. While Kettenring’s son’s initial foray into smoking cigarettes was easily detectable from the tell-tale smell of stale smoke on his clothing, it was only when he was getting ticketed at school eight years ago that she learned he had switched to an electronic cigarette. Kettenring went on local TV stations in September 2018 to highlight her concerns and promote an anti-tobacco program called "Tobacco Talk."
E-cigarette manufacturers have sometimes touted their products as cessation devices for smokers seeking to quit. However, Kettenring says state officials told her, “what they’re finding with youth is that they’re starting with these first, then going onto cigarettes.” JUULs are particularly worrying, she says, because, “one pod of JUUL can deliver more nicotine than a pack of cigarettes.”
Another key concern with Juuls is how easily users fly under the radar. “Kids can sit and suck on it right in front of you and you have no idea,” Kettenring says. “It’s very hard to detect unless you know what you’re looking for.”
While John R. Ryan, M.D., a cardiologist at University of Utah Health and director of the University of Utah Pulmonary Hypertension Center, has heard arguments that e-cigarettes are preferable to smoking cigarettes. He says, in reality, no one needs to consume nicotine, any more than they need to smoke cigarettes.
Ryan says in the past five years, e-cigarettes “have renormalized nicotine,” which for decades had been increasingly absent from teens’ lives. “Now we are predisposing a new generation to nicotine addiction.”
Nicotine’s impact on heart rate, blood pressure and blood vessels are all valid concerns, he says. “But the biggest risk factor with e-cigarettes is predisposing you to smoke cigarettes. There’s no physiologic benefit from using nicotine in a teen population, no benefit from vaping. Arguably the people who benefit the most are those who sell vaping products.”
JUULs’ repercussions in terms of addiction to nicotine on users are sadly evident for both Kettenring and Samantha’s eldest son. “He has been trying to wean himself off of it,” Samantha says. “He went to a different kind of vaping device that’s got less nicotine in it, but he’s still struggling with it.”