State, nonprofits attempt to curb 'Juuling' among youth

UPDATE: Juul's Ted Kwong responded to this story.

"We are committed to preventing youth access of JUUL products, and no young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL. We cannot fulfill our mission to provide the world’s one billion adult smokers with a true alternative to combustible cigarettes if youth use continues unabated."

"Tobacco 21 laws have been shown to dramatically reduce youth smoking rates, which is why we strongly support raising the minimum purchase age for all tobacco products, including vapor products like JUUL, to 21 in Delaware. Our secure website, JUUL.com, already requires all purchasers to be 21 and over. We look forward to working with policymakers at the federal, state and local levels to achieve Tobacco 21."

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Smoking in the boys room may be largely a thing of the past, but Juuling – in the boys and girls rooms – is as current as it gets.

While the number of high school students in Delaware who smoke cigarettes has dropped dramatically in the new millennium, an alarming number are using e-cigarettes, including the popular Juul.

The Delaware Youth Risk Behavior Survey is conducted biennially by the University of Delaware. In 2017, almost 40 percent of high schoolers surveyed had tried e-cigarettes. In contrast, the number who have tried cigarettes has fallen steadily since 1999, from 70 percent to 22 percent.

Over two decades, the youth smoking rate has fallen. Cigarette smoking today is at about one-third the rate young people smoked 20 years ago.

However, according to Washington D.C. nonprofit Tobacco Free Kids, youth e-cigarette use has gone up an alarming 78 percent in the year 2017 to 2018.

“That’s over 3.6 million middle and high school kids using e-cigarettes,” said Tobacco Free Kids Director of Youth Advocacy Gustavo Torrez. “And the main cause of the epidemic is Juul.”

On-ramp to addiction

Juul differs from other e-cigarettes because each pod contains nicotine salts derived from tobacco leaves, as opposed to the freebase nicotine in cigarettes and other vaping devices. Each pod carries the amount nicotine in a pack of cigarettes.

A Juul is only compatible with Juul pods, which don’t come in a nicotine-free variety. Other vaping devices are compatible with many brands of e-liquid, some nicotine-free. Many kids don’t know that Juuls always contain nicotine.

Surgeon General’s report on e-cigarettes, 2016

They appeal to youth for many reasons.

“It’s hard to design a more kid-friendly tobacco product,” Torrez said. “It’s small and it looks like a computer flash drive, so it’s easy to hide. It comes in flavors like mango and mint, and it delivers a really powerful dose of nicotine.” Nicotine is especially dangerous for young people whose brains are still developing.

Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health, said that e-cigarettes are reversing the hard-won effects of years spent battling tobacco use.

“We are extremely concerned about the significant increase of e-cigarette use among youth,” she said. “We believe that Juul has driven this uptick over the last couple of years. We’re hearing from all the schools that youth are using Juuls.

“Nicotine can disrupt the formation of brain circuits, which control attention, learning and susceptibility to addiction. Research is telling us that e-cigarette usage among youth leads to regular smoking, so they’re really an on-ramp to addiction.”

A 2016 Surgeon General’s report concluded nicotine in any form is unsafe, causes addiction and can harm the developing adolescent brain.

Fighting the epidemic

Senate Bill 25 was introduced in the General Assembly in late February. Primarily sponsored by Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, the bill raises the age to buy tobacco and tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, from 18 to 21. It passed in the Senate March 19 and was sent to the House Health and Human Development Committee.

“I think that raising the tobacco age to 21 is a simple strategy that can have a tremendous affect,” Rattay said. “Ninety-five percent of smokers say they began using tobacco prior to age 21. If we can prevent youth and young adult initiation to tobacco we can have a tremendous effect on nicotine addiction in our state.”

Torrez, at Tobacco Free Kids, agrees. Raising the legal age to 21 is one of his organization’s main initiatives. They’re also pushing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to develop comprehensive regulations for e-cigarettes.

“There’s no denying, when you have gummy bear and cotton candy flavors, that they attract kids,” Torrez said. “That’s why we’re pushing the FDA to ban flavored tobacco products that are really attractive to young people.”