It’s not only teens who are addicted.

Inside the FDA’s Crackdown on E-cigarettes

and why it won’t stop teens (or anyone else) from vaping

The FDA recently issued a stern warning to Juul, Myle, and other e-cigarette manufacturers, as well as hundreds of online and brick-and-mortar retailers, alleging that they didn’t do enough to keep their products out of the hands of teenagers.

“Make no mistake. We see the possibility for ENDS products like e-cigarettes and other novel forms of nicotine-delivery to provide a potentially less harmful alternative for currently addicted individual adult smokers who still want to get access to satisfying levels of nicotine without many of the harmful effects that come with the combustion of tobacco. But we’ve got to step in to protect our kids.” (FDA, April 24, 2018)

On the bright side, data collected from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (summarized here by Time) shows that more and more teens are repulsed by cigarettes, alcohol, and recreational drugs than ever before.

But they’re vaping at record rates.

A few months after issuing the first warning, the FDA gave Juul (and a few other manufacturers) 60 days to prepare action plans, describing exactly what they intended to do to keep their products out of the hands of teens. “If they fail to do so,” the FDA stated, “or if the plans do not appropriately address this issue, the FDA will consider whether it would be appropriate to revisit the current policy that results in these products remaining on the market without a marketing order from the agency” (FDA, September 12, 2018).

In response, Juul (allegedly) stopped selling its flavored pods at convenience stores and delis, offering these products only at authorized vape shops and through their online store. Myle allegedly stopped distributing its products altogether back in November of 2018.

But is this really keeping teenagers from getting their hands on Juul pods?

Not really. I say “allegedly” because I can still get flavored Juul pods and the “discontinued” Myle pods without going too far out of my way. I can:

  • go to pretty much any convenience store in New York, where owners seemed to have planned ahead and purchased flavored pods in bulk (one store I go to has several hundred boxes on display)
  • buy from a friend of a friend of a friend who sells them like contraband
  • buy them online

Everyone who vapes knows someone who sells pods. It just takes a few phone calls and a few minutes to find someone who will sell you a box for $20–25. Some people even deliver.

And, because I’m not a teenager, I can order the pods from the official online retailers or get them from an actual vape shop.

But teens don’t need to take extreme measures to get their hands on Juul pods. They can waltz into a convenience store, just like I do, and buy 1 pod at a time, usually without an ID (the going rate is $5 for the boring flavors and $6–7 for the delicious ones). Or they can call up a friend of a friend of a friend and arrange for delivery right outside of their school.

I came across this post from Phillip Sull, which I didn’t realize was satirical until the very last paragraph, when the author suggested that cigarettes are a fantastic plant-based alternative to Juuling.

Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash

The story goes something like this: The author was befuddled when he attempted to buy Juul pods and the cashier suggested cigarettes instead. Fortunately, he was able to break his nasty Juul habit by switching to cigarettes.

Although satirical, this story makes an important point about people who vape: for the most part, the thought of “switching” to cigarettes doesn’t readily cross the mind of someone who can’t find Juul pods.

While the nicotine addiction is real, the thought of smoking cigarettes simply isn’t appealing to most Juul addicts. It’s much more likely that a ban on flavored Juul pods will just lead to more teens choosing mint- or tobacco-flavored pods, since they’re still readily available (and will continue to be available even if flavored pods eventually do become harder to acquire).

I asked some Juul smokers if they would smoke cigarettes if they ran out of Juul pods.

Hell no. That s***’s disgusting.

Another said:

No. If it’s a real emergency, like if I know I’m going to be without Juul pods for like 24 hours, I might take a pull on a friend’s cigarette, but I hate it and never smoked a whole cigarette in my life. I’ll just take a hit, get my nicotine, and find a store that sells Juul pods.

Another said:

I’d rather smoke the worst flavors of Juul pods than smoke cigarettes.

While there is plenty of evidence that teens are vaping at record rates, there is virtually no evidence that teens who vape end up “transitioning” to regular cigarettes, or to anything else for that matter. In fact, the data collected by NIDA shows the opposite; teens are turned off by cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs.

But they like the Juul.

Photo by Luther Bottrill on Unsplash

The FDA’s ban is well-intentioned.

But with so many ways to get Juul pods (including a number of “hacks” to refill empty pods), it’s unlikely that teens will be too inconvenienced by the regulation.

They’re not addicted to the flavors; they’re addicted to nicotine. And if the FDA wanted to do something about it, they would have to:

  • ban all brick and mortar stores from selling any flavor of Juul pods — mint and tobacco included
  • increase the minimum age to buy products at vape shops (the current minimum age is 21 in most jurisdictions)
  • put a hard limit on the amount of nicotine that can be present in a single pod

But it doesn’t seem like any of these radical measures are on the horizon.

The Future

While alcohol is responsible for 2.8 million deaths annually, and while cigarette smoking kills half a million a year in the U.S. alone, we might want to take a minute to rejoice in the fact that teens are losing interest in alcohol and cigarettes.

The interest in nicotine, though, is at an all-time high.

But is nicotine a public health hazard? Is nicotine, in pure form, deadly for teens but somehow safe for adults? If so, is the FDA’s regulation going to extend to all nicotine products, including patches and gum? Is it just meant to be a deterrent by preventing teens from trying it in the first place? Or is the entire argument against vaping that there is a chance — though not quantifiable — that someone who is addicted to nicotine might start smoking cigarettes?

The data is clear: teens are vaping. A lot. And they, like many adults, will go out of their way to get their hands on nicotine. But the FDA’s regulations haven’t made much of a difference, at least in the bigger cities, where it’s just as easy as ever to buy Juul pods.

We know that we don’t want teens to vape, but we don’t have enough hard evidence to explain why, other than “we don’t know the long-term effects” and “you’ll get addicted”.

Campaigns against alcohol and cigarettes have been effective because teens have seen the potential effects of partaking. When it comes to alcohol, cigarettes, or illicit drugs, we have the evidence to back it up: they can kill you, or, in the case of alcohol and certain drugs, impair you to the point that you end up hurting yourself or others.

We know that drunk driving is a leading cause of premature death. We know that cigarettes cause all sorts of cancers. Regulations might make cigarettes and alcohol harder to acquire, but the bottom line is that teens are choosing not to acquire them.

A campaign that tells teens not to vape would need to have a real answer to the question, “Why not?”

Without an answer to this question, the FDA’s regulation will just be a minor annoyance.

Teens still want to vape, and Juul pods are still available everywhere.

technical writer • site reliability engineer • engineering leader • all views are my own • 👩🏻‍💻

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