*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.
October 26, 2017
CHS senior Ryan* used to smoke nearly a pack of cigarettes everyday.
“I was having a hard time breathing while I was running, and I still do sometimes, but it’s become easier at least. I almost smoked a pack a day for a while. It got really bad and I was like ‘alright, I’ve got to slow down. I’m only 17 and I’m about to have lung cancer at 25 or some shit,” he said.
For Ryan, smoking cigarettes was a practice rooted largely in his cultural and environmental influences.
As his cigarette smoking became more and more of an addiction, Ryan realized he needed to find an alternative. He was introduced to the JUUL, a vaporizer, by a friend, and has been using it ever since.
“I’m quitting [cigarettes] so I asked somebody if [I could use their JUUL] because I knew those were at least better than cigarettes and “why not?” so I haven’t really bought any packs of cigarettes recently,” he said.
Like Ryan, CHS senior Bryant* was introduced to the JUUL by a friend.
“[I was introduced to it] over the summer at a party. They said it was a new product, and I was like “Oh, I’ll try it” so I tried it and I liked it. I didn’t buy one until three months later and then I started using it pretty often,” Bryant said.
Bryant admitted that JUUL-ing became an addiction that even pervaded onto school grounds.
“If you are actually addicted to the JUUL, you’ll hit it when you feel the urge to. For me at least it’s every class period I feel the urge to hit it. But that doesn’t mean that I will get the head high. Just the urge will go away,” he said.
The JUUL is manufactured by the company Pax Labs. The company asserts that the JUUL is for “adult smokers seeking a satisfying alternative to cigarettes.”
While the JUUL device was purportedly designed for adult users, it has quickly become a household name in the realm of teen drug use.
Ryan and Bryant are not the only CHS students familiar with the JUUL device. According to a survey of nearly 200 CHS students, 20.9 percent of students have used a JUUL.
The process of buying the vaporizer is not so black-and-white. The same survey showed that 10 percent of students had bought a JUUL or JUUL pods before. Ryan explained that there is a kind of network by which Clayton students can obtain the device.
“There are a bunch of people who are already 18 so they go and get [JUULs] out in St. Charles. I get mine from a friend. Actually I have several friends who sell them,” Ryan said.
The JUUL functions with pods that are comprised of flavoring chemicals and, according to Pax Labs’ website, 5 percent nicotine by weight.
Bryant has developed a system for acquiring JUUL pods.
“[I get them] simply because I would send someone their homework for a pod. Like if I just did their homework and they gave me a pod for free,” he said.
Bryant still worries about the ease at which students can not only get their hands on a JUUL, but use it during the school day. He attributes the popularity of the JUUL to this high level of accessibility and convenience.
“It’s kind of scary how easy it is to get and it’s easy to one, do it in the school. And two, get away with it. So people who smoke cigarettes, they can’t get away with it because one, you can’t do it in school and two, it smells and you can’t do it at home,” he said. “But with the JUUL you can do it anywhere you want, and it’s so much easier to get addicted because it’s always there for you.”
As Bryant explained, many JUUL users do not hesitate to use the device on school grounds.
“You can swallow the smoke and it won’t come out,” Ryan said. “So I’ll take a hit in the hallways or JUUL in my car if I’m going to lunch or something.”
For Ryan, smoking, in general, has been a coping mechanism for some personal difficulties.
“Junior year is when it really hit me. I was smoking during school sometimes. I was doing it a lot. It was also because I was having a hard time at home, so it just made me feel better,” he said. “I remember in health class, they would talk about how this is not actually relaxing you but to me, it feels like it’s actually relaxing you. Just getting the buzz or letting the smoke just flow out, it just made me feel better.”
The JUUL allowed Ryan to quit smoking cigarettes while still providing him a similar kind of relief that he’d come to expect from cigarettes.
“It’s like a vape. A lot of people buy vapes because they want to stop cigarettes. That’s what the JUUL is for me,” Ryan said.
CHS senior Ella Engel believes that the popularity of JUULs has ultimately led to her peers developing new habits.
“At parties, I’ve noticed more and more people going out to smoke cigarettes and even using chewing tobacco. Before JUULs were a thing, smoking cigarettes [and using chewing tobacco] was looked down upon and it wasn’t really a part of the party culture at Clayton,” Engel said.
The CHS administration has become increasingly aware of the prominence of vaping in the past few years. Nearly 10 percent of CHS students have used a JUUL on campus and the district’s disciplinary policy has adapted to these kinds of trends.
“I think our policies need to reflect it and be responsive to it and that’s why we made the change a couple of years ago,” CHS principal Dr. Dan Gutchewsky said. “Going back two or three years we had a situation where we caught a kid with [an e-cigarette] and actually looked at the policy and it didn’t even talk about this.”
The ambiguous chemical makeup of the JUUL and comparable devices present a logistic problem on the administrative side of things.
“The other challenge I think with e-cigarettes and vaporizers is the various oils and waxes that you can put in them that make it difficult to detect because the odor isn’t as prevalent and it doesn’t linger on your clothes as it does with kids who are smoking a joint so it certainly makes it more challenging from an administrative standpoint,” Gutchewsky said.
Gutchewsky spent part of a recent faculty meeting discussing the JUUL device and seeks to continue to combat JUUL use at CHS.
“I think I’ve learned a lot more about them in the past few months as we try to be proactive in how we’re dealing with it,” he said.
Two years ago, CHS parent Beth Deutsch took the initiative to start the Drug and Alcohol Task Force. That initial initiative has since morphed into the formation of the All-In Clayton Coalition, a parent-led group that meets monthly. In an attempt to serve the needs of all of Clayton, meetings are open to the general Clayton public.
The All-in Clayton Coalition partners with the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NCADA) in an attempt to reduce substance abuse among Clayton students.
“NCADA, at no cost to the Coalition, they’re there to help support and educate and drive the work in a research-based, fact-based kind of way,” Deutsch said.
At the core of the All-In Clayton Coalition’s mission are the verbs prevent, reduce, educate and advocate. Deutsch believes that the educational component can be misconceived.
“The ‘educate’ part is as much educating parents as it is about the students. It really is a community effort,” she said.
Deutsch insists that Clayton being an affluent, well-off community doesn’t make it immune to problems associated with drug and alcohol use.
“The Clayton community is a very highly educated community with excellent resources but it doesn’t mean everybody is up to date on all the latest research, on the latest preventative techniques in every area of life so drug prevention is one area that we see as really important to educate, in the hopes that we will prevent and reduce drug use among minors in Clayton,” she said.
With the backing and continued support from the NCADA and the School District of Clayton, Deutsch is hopeful that the impact of the Coalition will continue to grow.
“Having the backing of the district really helps get the message out and get things done. We get awesome ideas and input from administration within the school district. We welcome anyone that is interested. The advice from NCADA was ‘let’s not try to force this. Let’s see how we can organically grow it,’” she said.
“I don’t think anyone’s an expert on JUULs at this point,” Kelly Wieser, Associate Director of Prevention Education for NCADA, said.
Wieser attributes the rise in popularity of the JUUL to two main factors.
“When I talk with high school students in other schools, they like the hiding factor of it but they also like the fact they get a pretty immediate head rush from it so that’s leading them down the path to addiction,” she said.
The perception of JUULs as harm-free is, in Wieser’s eyes, a dangerous illusion.
“Supposedly, a pod is about equivalent to a pack of cigarettes in terms of the nicotine that’s in there,” Weiser said. “Sometimes when people vape, they might just take a drag off of it and then they put it down for a while. Other people, they just continually vape on it so there’s a risk of overdosing on nicotine.”
Ryan’s experience with using the JUUL to reduce his cigarette-smoking is not an uncommon experience.
“For smokers, there’s some indications in observational research as well as in random trials suggest that people who are using e-cigs to quit smoking or to reduce their smoking exposure, it can be a good thing. Certainly, thousands of people have reported quitting smoking with e-cigs,” Washington University Professor of Medicine Dr. Amy McQueen said. “There are plenty of people with e-cigs who downgraded their nicotine levels over time and some smoke them with zero nicotine. In that sense, it can be a new opportunity for smokers to attempt to quit.”
The ambiguous compositional makeup of the JUUL device is reason to be cautious, McQueen believes.
“With e-cigs, some of them come from China and you really wonder what’s in there. There’s no regulation and so it’s really unclear what’s in there,” McQueen said. “It’s not necessarily known what the threshold is that would then cause addiction in which case they’d try to increase their use.”
Gutchewsky seconds McQueen’s concern regarding the mysterious nature of the JUUL and other e-cigarettes.
“I worry just from a health standpoint for kids because I think e-cigarettes to the general public have been advertised as sort of a healthy alternative to cigarettes or a way to quit smoking cigarettes,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of unknowns regarding the health effects with the various vaporizers and I don’t know and it wouldn’t surprise me if down the road that we find they’re certainly not healthier than cigarettes.”
A main risk associated with teen e-cigarette usage comes from the prospect of building a tolerance for nicotine and the health implications of doing so.
“Tolerance to nicotine builds up fairly quickly in the brain to the fact that someone who is in high school might JUUL a little bit and have a full-on addiction to nicotine. In terms of what nicotine can do to the body, it raises the risk of heart attack, raises the risk of stroke; I know as a teenager somebody might think it’s not going to happen to them or they’re still young, you know, ‘I’ll quit at some point,’ but knowing that nicotine is very hard to quit, it leads them down a path [that is] very challenging health-wise,” Wieser said.
According to the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, “e-cigarettes with nicotine have the potential to more greatly affect addiction among youth than adults since brain development continues until the mid-20s. Decision making, impulse control, sensation seeking, and peer pressure are all examples of brain development activities among adolescents. Physicians are especially concerned that teens who vape will develop an addiction to nicotine.”
Ryan insisted that smoking the JUUL was a better alternative for him, both on the financial and health side of things. He also mentions that the process of using the JUUL allows him to more effectively control his use.
“I save more money and I actually like the taste better than cigarettes. Plus, it is a better alternative although it’s not healthy either. It still ends up working out better,” Ryan said. “There’s chemicals in it for sure; there’s like 10 percent nicotine. But cigarettes have more. I typically buy one pod each time I buy because I can save and control it with the JUUL.”
Wieser pointed out that the transition from vaping to smoking cigarettes may often be a natural one especially for Missourians, given the financial implications of the state’s low cigarette taxes.
“In Missouri we have really cheap tobacco prices. It makes our cigarette prices cheaper than other places. At some point, a $50 starter pack of the JUUL is a whole lot more than a pack of cigarettes,” she said. “In Missouri, a pack of cigarettes is potentially a lot cheaper to the point where people would move from vaping onto traditional cigarettes with those 7,000 chemicals and the cancer risks and everything else.”
McQueen believes that the popularization of e-cigarette devices like the JUUL may act to reverse the efforts made in the public health arena to advance anti-smoking rhetoric.
“A concern in the public health community is that we’ve done so much to denormalize smoking behavior in this country and that’s really helped us to reduce cigarette smoking in the adult population and we’ve had some success with teens and young adults but this new perceived cool and perceived lower risk, perceived newer technology option might revamp the whole ‘smoking is cool’ social norm,” she said.
Wieser suggests that the ambiguous and nuanced nature of the JUUL product makes it an attractive option for teens. The perception, Wieser asserts, does not necessarily match the reality.
Wieser hopes that education will serve as a vehicle to deter teens from using products like the JUUL.
“In the moment, something like this is new or innovative, but I don’t think people think three years from now, or 10 years from now, what the ramifications will be. You’d hope that through education you could provide some information that would make people think twice and at least try to make some healthy choices,” Wieser said.