It can be easily concealed in the palm of a hand, and produces vapor that quickly dissipates.
Unaccompanied by the tell-tale odors of a regular cigarette, it can make unobserved smoking a breeze.
The Juul vaporizer, which hit the market in 2016, is an electronic product intended for adults who want to stop smoking traditional cigarettes. A single Juul cartridge is equal to a pack of cigarettes, or approximately 200 puffs, according to the product’s website.
But what started as a route to redemption for adult smokers has led to a growing trend among teenagers. As vaping – the inhaling and exhaling of aerosol – becomes more commonplace for teens, the Juul allows a new type of vapor inhalation that can go completely undetected by adults.
In 2017, 32 percent of Ottawa County teens reported having used an electronic vapor product, according to the most recent Ottawa County Youth Assessment Survey. While that percentage is lower than the national level (42 percent), it’s an increase from 2015, when 25 percent of local teens admitted that they had vaped.
So what’s causing this trend to grow?
“I really think a large reason why it’s so appealing to kids is because it’s new,” said Leigh Moerdyke, member of the Ottawa Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition.
Focus groups organized by the coalition revealed that the flavored vapors in the devices are also very appealing to kids.
As Juul’s website states, “Whatever your preference may be, there’s a Juul flavor for you.” Kids can choose between “Cool Mint,” “Crème Brûlée,” “Fruit Medley” and other flavors, and they are clearly enticed.
The company, reportedly valued at $15 billion, is currently facing some legal trouble over the product’s obvious appeal to teens. The Massachusetts attorney general is investigating whether Juul violates state law by failing to prevent minors from buying its products, CNN reported Tuesday. Investigators are also trying to determine whether the company intentionally markets its products to teens, and whether it tracks underage use of its products.
But Juul says it has never marketed to anyone underage, and welcomes the opportunity to work with the Massachusetts attorney general.
“We too are committed to preventing underage use of Juul,” said Matt David, Juul Labs’ Chief Communications Officer, in a released statement. “We utilize stringent online tools to block attempts by those under the age of 21 from purchasing our products, including unique ID match and age verification technology.”
A Juul product can be purchased online or in-store. Although prices vary at different locations, the company’s website sells a “Juul Starter Kit,” which includes the device, a USB charging dock and four JUULpods, for $49.99, Upon entering the company’s website, a window pops up to verify that users are at least 21-years-old.
Federal law prohibits the sale of tobacco products to minors, including vapor products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration imposed a minimum age of 18 for the purchase of e-cigarettes in 2016. But Michigan does not currently have any laws preventing minors from possessing the products. Holland Police Department officials said there isn’t much they can do if they find a kid with an e-cigarette.
Even though possession is not illegal, most high schools have prohibited possession of electronic vapor products, as the devices have become more popular among teens.
“We would treat it much like cigarettes were treated by most schools years ago,” said West Ottawa High School Principal Todd Tulgestke. “It’s no different than a student with a pack of cigarettes to us. It’s not permitted on school property or at school-sponsored activities.”
Tulgestke said vaping hasn’t been a huge problem at West Ottawa, but he knows it’s out there. He said its an issue for many area principals.
Landon Cooley-Themm, 15, just finished up his freshman year at Hudsonville High School, and said kids are definitely vaping at school, despite rules prohibiting the practice.
“I know people have been busted doing it in halls, outside, and on school property,” he said. “One time, kids set off the fire alarm in the bathroom because they were vaping.”
Lexi Tater, 14, a sophomore at Grand Haven High School, said she knows quite a few kids who vape. She was surprised to learn that only one-third of area teens have admitted vaping.
“At my school, they took the door off of the guys’ bathroom back in May,” she said. “I’ve heard it’s because of vaping in the bathrooms. If there’s more than one student in stalls at a time, they’ll get in trouble.”
Based on his interactions with peers, Cooley-Them believes youthful ignorance plays a large role in teen vaping.
“I think that they don’t know most of the facts about e-cigs,” he said. “They don’t know what there is in them.” The 2017 youth survey also asked whether kids believe there is any harm in vaping. Almost half believe there is no risk, or very slight risks, in using electronic vapor products.
Each Juul pod is designed to contain approximately 0.7mL of liquid, with five percent nicotine by weight at the time of manufacture, according to the company’s website. Other ingredients include benzoic acid, glycerol, propylene glycol, natural oils, extracts and flavor.
But there isn’t a whole lot of research available on the health effects of vaping.
“The challenging thing is that electronic cigarettes are relatively new to the scene,” said Moerdyke, the Ottawa Substance Abuse Prevention official. “There isn’t a whole lot of research on it yet, because it takes a long time to study the impact of something on our bodies, so we don’t know a lot about them.”
The CDC says scientists are still learning about the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes. But it is known that most of these products contain nicotine, which is highly addictive and can harm adolescent brain development, which continues into the early to mid-20s.
Cooley-Themm and Tater said their parents have never asked them about vaping or using e-cigarettes.
“They know it isn’t something I would do,” Cooley-Themm said.
Experts say teen-parent conversations about vaping are important.
“Find natural times to talk with kids - a summer road trip would be a great opportunity to bring up the conversation,” Moerdyke said. “Take time during a family meal to ask what kids know about vaping trends.”
Parents should also be aware that kids can inhale more than just nicotine with electronic vapor products.
“Vaporizers can also be used to smoke liquid marijuana without a lot of odor,” Moerdyke said. “Parents should remain aware of the risks these products bring, and how they can talk to their kids about it.”