NYC Is Coming For Your Flavored Juul Pods
(Aleksandr Yu / Shutterstock)
Grant Fuhrman, a rising freshman at a private New York City high school, is worried about his classmates. He estimates that about a quarter of them are hooked on the Juul. They do it in the classroom, exhaling into their sleeves or backpacks. They blow billowing clouds in the bathrooms. They circulate memes on Instagram and elsewhere, like this petition to Remove The Toilets From Juul Rooms, which would be pretty funny, if not for the fact that Fuhrman says he knows a 5th grader who Juuls.
“It’s totally rampant,” the 14-year-old proclaims. “Smoking is what your parents or grandparents do. Vaping is the new hip thing.” Indeed, more than 3 million high school students are believed to have used e-cigarettes in 2018, a startling 78 percent increase from the previous year.
We’re standing in a SoHo pocket park, where Fuhrman’s mother is helping to stage a rally outside of Juul’s 6th Avenue headquarters, along with roughly a dozen other members of Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes (PAVE).
The group was formed by a trio of concerned Manhattan moms who feared their teenage sons would be swept up in the phenomenon. This summer, they testified before Congress about Juul’s allegedly deceptive marketing practices, claiming that the company has employed Big Tobacco-style practices to perpetuate “the most serious adolescent public health crisis the country has faced in decades.” (Juul is 35%-owned by Marlboro maker Altria.)
Their focus today is a bill in the City Council, which would ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes and pods throughout the five boroughs. The legislation has garnered 21 co-sponsors since it was introduced earlier this year. It does not have a hearing date yet, but is currently moving through the legislative process, according to Speaker Corey Johnson, himself a recent Juul convert.
“Flavored e-cigarettes give big tobacco free reign to hook a generation of children on nicotine products,” a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio told Gothamist. “It’s time we say enough is enough, and do our part protect the health and safety of our children.”
Mark Levine, the bill’s lead sponsor, clarified that the bill is only focused on flavors “we know are hooking kids,” adding that “no one is talking about a blanket ban on vaping.” In fact, some localities are beginning to talk about such drastic measures, after San Francisco took the unprecedented step of banning all vapes in the city earlier this summer.
While stopping short of an outright ban, the City Council legislation could have costly consequences for the vape industry, a $2.5 billion business in the United States. For Juul, it would prevent them from selling the widely popular mint pods in stores. Other e-cig providers, which sell flavors like bubble gum or chocolate cake, would see the vast majority of their stock barred. One vape advocate likened the proposal to “Armageddon.”
Earlier this morning, Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes (PAVe) staged a rally outside Juul’s Soho headquarters calling for a ban on flavored pods, including Mint. Angry vape advocates showed up and interrupted pic.twitter.com/DrrgCAvM4S
— Jake Offenhartz (@jangelooff) August 20, 2019
Following the press conferences, a PR representative for Juul directed reporters toward a handful of “switchers”—people who could talk about the impact that the bill would have on their lives.
Michael Bowers, who owns two vape shops in Westchester, said many of his older customers gravitate toward flavors in order to escape the smell and taste of cigarettes. Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, described the proposal as a “modern day prohibition,” similar to the laws against marijuana.
The pro-vape crowd stationed itself at the edge of the rally, occasionally talking over their opponents. When Meredith Berkman, a co-founder of PAVE, brought up advisories related to a recent spate of “vaping associated” hospitalizations, a member of a consumer advocacy group called Vaping Legion interrupted to blame the unregulated THC cartridges.
“We don’t even know what these kids are ingesting,” responded Berkman. “We don’t want our kids to be human guinea pigs.” The Center for Disease Control notes that Juuls contain very high levels of nicotine, which is not itself a carcinogen, but can still harm young brains. The aerosol used by Juul and other e-cig makers also contains harmful ingredients, though significantly less so than traditional combustible cigarettes.
For years, Juul has claimed that their vapor products are aimed exclusively at helping adult smokers kick the habit. They admit that “flavored products that appeal to adults may also appeal to youth,” but have pledged to undertake a range of initiatives to address that problem. Non-menthol and non-tobacco flavors such as Mango and Creme are no longer available in retail stores, for example, and the company shuttered its Facebook and Instagram accounts (“The kids handle the marketing with memes,” says Fuhrman.)
In a statement, a spokesperson for the company said they had never marketed their products to youth. “We do not want or need new non-nicotine users. Our market is the over 1 billion adult smokers worldwide who should have the opportunity to switch to vapor products if they so desire,” the spokesperson.
Both kids and parents say it’s not enough. “Everyone starts with flavored pods,” notes Phillip Fuhrman, Grant’s 16-year-old brother, who says he became addicted to mint, before his mom found his stash and forced him to quit. “The nicotine withdrawal is so hard to endure.”
According to Fuhrman, as long as flavored pods are available for adults, underage kids will find a way to get their hands on them: “When you tell a teen not to do something, that just makes them want to do it more.”