Are you cool enough to Juul? What the new e-cig phenomenon tells us

By Lo Sniderman ’19 and Will Kaback ’20

Tags opinion

Here’s some breaking news: you’re not slick. Yes, you. The one blowing Juul smoke inconspicuously into the hem of your shirt from the back of the class. Or you. Congratulations for cordoning off a KJ study space, but everyone can see the thin vapor clouds that appear intermittently over your computer screen like a wall of fog making its way across a coastal landscape. We see you, you purveyors of Juul, you demigods of vape, you nicotine fiends. Even though you might think it looks like you are casually sucking on a USB (why that is an acceptable alternative is unclear), the infamy of the Juul is now widespread enough to clue in the most vehement of non-smokers. Like it or not, the Juul revolution is here, and it looks like it’s going to stay. As cigarettes weaken their previously airtight grip on the “king of the party darts” tag, the Juul is poised to become the method of choice for smokers of all shapes and sizes here at Hamilton and around the country. The question now is: why? And, what can be gleaned from the Juul’s rapid ascent to the pinnacle of oral nicotine transport mechanisms? 

Just as it took the iPhone to transition an entire generation of people onto the smartphone wave, the Juul seems to be the catalyst for popularizing the use of e-cigs as not only socially acceptable, but as a testament to one’s social esteem.  The Juul, Pax’s wildly popular e-cigarette, has a unique design, feel and user demographic that makes it the elite college student’s perfect way to make nicotine addiction cool again. 

Admittedly, Pax Labs had some real genius behind the design and marketability of their latest product. The long, thin rectangular e-cig is sleek and pocket-sized, making it a convenient party companion and the perfect wing man. The lightweight vape is designed with a slot at the top that emits nicotine-infused juice triggered by inhalation, and with four pretentiously titled, color-coded flavors—tabaac, fruut, miint and bruulé—the Juul stays true to its bougie market base. A four-pack of flavor cartridges goes for $16 and each one has nicotine levels equivalent to a pack of cigarettes, making it one of the most nicotine-heavy e-cigarettes available. Its most convenient feature is probably that it requires hardly any maintenance or cleaning; just an occasional replenishment of Juulpods based on how severe the user’s nicotine dependence has become. 

For the few Juul users who have transitioned into the product rather than jumping onto the bandwagon after it became cool, they know that previous e-cigs have been vastly inferior. Most other e-cigs on the market look like some kind of wand-shaped lollipop, often constructed out of multiple pieces and a variety of materials like glass bowls and plastic handles. Their clunky design contributes to the persistent social stigma that e-cigs have carried up until the Juul; despite their relative (and alleged) safety compared to cigarettes, there was never much potential for a souped up glowstick to help you climb the social totem pole.

Then came the Juul. Designed specifically to avoid any resemblance to a cigarette, Pax aimed for the Juul to be more of an evolution than a technological advancement. The company’s acute attention to the product’s sleek detail has served it well—the Juul has hit college campuses and high schools across the country in waves of popularity, making it so coveted that there’s an effective shortage of the product on the market. It seems the trendy and black-lunged youth of America have deemed the Juul to be the first e-cig to pass the test of being both aesthetically pleasing and delivering a potent nicotine punch. The relative scarcity of Juuls in circulation make those who have them even more entitled to some kind of reputation badge—one that carries the connotation of being “en vogue.” 

Proponents of e-cigarettes will say that smoking from a vape is infinitely preferable to smoking a cigarette. This holds true for the Juul, as many users claim to “rip Juul” as a way to avoid smoking a cigarette. This might be an encouraging sign that college students are aware of the dangers of smoking and seeking alternatives, but then the question arises; why Juul of all products? After all, Juul was relatively late to get to the e-cig market, and doesn’t offer any bigger clouds or more flavors than other brands. Some might say it’s because of the high nicotine content, but this is just one explanation. 

In truth, the Juul is a perfect storm of design, marketing and class politics aimed at an age group especially susceptible to what it offers. It’s no coincidence the Juul draws inspiration from the iPhone, whether that comes through in the simplified, user-friendly design or general practicability. Its marketing campaign depicts refined, well-coiffed youths in angsty or uber-relaxed poses, the Juul subtly displayed in the side of their mouth or poking out of a pant pocket. And it’s target demographic—college-aged, relatively wealthy, somewhat apathetic guys and girls—is well primed to embrace it. The pack-mentality that has emerged around the Juul is remarkable; in under a year, it has become a niche toy of sorts for parties and homework alike. There are competitions to see who goes through a pod the fastest, and fights have broken out between friends when a charger goes missing, there is a dearth of pods available, or someone has been “hogging the Juul.” Recently, when there was a shortage of pods available for sale at local stores and online, a cutthroat market popped up wherein students would hoard their pods and sell them for exorbitant prices, or not at all (as a show of “Juul power”). 

Say what you will about the relative pros of e-cig over cigarette, but these occurrences can hardly be classified as normal. That’s not to say that we should shy away from the Juul, or even stop using it altogether. Rather, the users of the Juul and others with close proximity to its use should be more aware of its effects. Greater mindfulness geared towards why the Juul is so enticing and how that manifests itself in our actions and relationships will only promote more positive use. It’s fine for the Juul to be cool and fun, as long as that doesn’t transform into something less constructive, like a hierarchy built around the product (as silly as it might sound, this is not so far outside the realm of possibility). So Juul away, friends. Just make sure you know your antics (at times) are being seen, no matter how subtle you might be. 

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