Walking the halls of Ridgedale High School, the LED lights feel harsh. A cold winter breeze escapes from the front door through the Attendance Office. We walk squeakily on the freshly waxed floors, with Rachel and her friend Hailey–both seniors at RHS–flanking me on either side. I ask them to update me on which wing of the school the seniors have claimed this year.
“And our lockers are pretty much all in this hallway so I think it’s just easy,” Rachel added.
Bathrooms are now all the rage in high school because it’s the only place where students can privately get their daily dose of nicotine. As we approached the D Wing, Rachel and Hailey assured me that neither of them
Students flood the hallways subsequent to a long, automated beep that sounds throughout the buildings. Rachel and Hailey
E-cigarettes like the JUUL were introduced to help people quit smoking cigarettes. But you aren’t going to find too many vapers in high school who are trying to quit cigarettes. “Nobody smokes cigarettes,” said Brennan McDermott an underclassman at Simsbury High in Connecticut to the New York Times. “You go to the bathroom, there’s a zero percent chance that anyone’s smoking a cigarette and there’s a 50-50 chance that there’s 5 guys JUULing. And it’s like, how Band-Aid has become synonymous with ‘bandage’? JUUL has become synonymous with ‘vape.’”
The popularity of vaping among teens, and the way it has introduced them to nicotine by completely bypassing cigarettes has been a huge point of contention for the makers of JUUL. “What we’ve seen happening with youth we did not want to be happening,” said Ashley Gould, Chief Administrative Officer of JUUL in a recent New York Times article. “We’re taking it extremely seriously. We do not want underage kids using our products. Our marketing is directed toward adults, tested with adults.”
“I have to call BS on that because the flavors are cotton candy, Frutti Tutti and they have cartoon characters on their labels and you can mix flavors and strengths,” said Dr. Larry Wolk, head of Colorado’s health department to NPR. “It’s really appealing to kids, whether or not they are intentionally marketing to kids.”
There is growing concern that the JUUL is a gateway to cigarette smoking. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that among nearly 700 people studied, 16 used e-cigarettes when the study began. A year later, 11 of the 16 had moved from e-cigs to cigarette smoking. Because e-cigarettes deliver nicotine more slowly than traditional cigarettes, they may serve as a nicotine starter, allowing a new user to advance to cigarette smoking as he or she becomes tolerant of the initial adverse effects.
The problem with teens smoking addictive devices is that they don’t know the effects vaping has on their bodies in the long term. The adolescent brain is even more vulnerable to these addictions than adults over 25, whose frontal cortex has fully formed. Nicotine is the key addictive substance in cigarettes and e-cigarettes and can actually trigger anxiety and depression in teen users. Repeated exposure to nicotine actually changes the brains receptors, creating a higher tolerance, thus teens would need more and more nicotine to feel the “high”.
Popularized by its sleek, easy to conceal design and flavors, the FDA has attempted to minimize youth use by removing flavored JUUL pods from shelves. Researchers and parents are deeply concerned by the evolving adolescent smoking problem. Can regulation really stop teens from smoking?
The bleach smell burns my nostrils as we swing open the bathroom door in the D-Wing. Rachel, Hailey and their friends hop up on the sinks and gather in a circle. I ask why they smoke…Emma takes a long hit and inhales, “I don’t even know what’s in the JUUL,” she confesses “I just know it tastes good and I get a great head rush.” Emma exhales the smoke and I watch as it travels out of the bathroom through the little window in the top right corner.
Emma is not alone in thinking the JUUL tastes so great, that is part of its appeal. Sebastian, a high school student from Northern California, explained his
JUUL claims to not have been attempting to market their product to young children but many adults argue that they wouldn’t have created such enticing and delicious flavors that appeal to children. Mango, Fruit, Crème and Cucumber are just some of the flavors that attract adolescents. These are also the flavors that have been discontinued from brick and mortar stores after FDA regulations were put in place in hopes of curbing adolescent smoking. JUUL defended themselves as the CEO Kevin Burns released a statement claiming, “Our intent was never to have youth use JUUL…But intent is not enough. The numbers are what matter and the numbers tell us underage use of e-cigarettes is a problem.”
As we stroll towards the staircase and make our way to lunch, the girls giggle and talk among themselves. At 17 years old, they are young and their developing brains are vulnerable to substances. Parental concern is a common discourse surrounding all types of smoking in general. I ask the girls if their parents are concerned at all or have tried to make them stop. Most of them agreed that their parents are unaware, but it is dependent on how old they are/how many siblings they have. Ultimately, adolescents are going to what they want because it’s part of growing up but their health and safety is at risk. As the youngest of four, Laura, in a bragging tone, “I could literally do anything and my parents would never notice and how would they really stop me anyway.”