While walking around UC Berkeley, you’ve likely seen a student or professor taking a drag from their Juul electronic cigarette before releasing a large plume of smoke. Since Juul’s U.S. debut in 2015, the e-cigarette brand has grown in popularity as its products are commonly perceived as safer alternatives to tobacco cigarettes. Over the past several months, however, the health risks linked to vaping have been called into question, and many worry that vaping might be the catalyst for a national health crisis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, vaping has been linked to almost 1,888 lung injury cases in 49 states, including California. The organization has also confirmed 37 vaping-related fatalities as of Oct. 29, a number which continues to rise as more individuals are sickened by their e-cigarettes, vape pens and Juul devices.
Juuls were originally marketed with the intent to help adult cigarette smokers curb their nicotine addictions. Now, it’s commonplace for teenagers and young adults to use e-cigarettes. In fact, one in five high school students reportedly vape. The CDC states that two-thirds of users between ages 15 to 24 don’t even realize that Juulpods contain nicotine. The reality is that vaping a single Juulpod is equivalent to smoking 20 regular cigarettes. Consequently, many younger users have developed unforseen addictions to their e-cigarettes, plus an array of other health issues brought on by vaping.
The mysterious lung disease that has hospitalized almost 2,000 e-cigarette users has recently been named EVALI, which stands for “E-cigarettes or Vaping product use Associated Lung Injury,” according to ABC News. Although no single product or device has been a direct link to cause EVALI, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has advised users to stop using certain e-cigarette products, especially those containing tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, that were obtained off the street.
Users have also reported other health complications, including nicotine poisoning, seizures and injuries from defective or explosive e-cigarette batteries. In one instance, a faulty lithium-ion battery in the user’s vape pen caused the device to explode in his mouth, damaging his jaw and blasting a hole through his chin, which caused him to lose several teeth. This case is just one of about 2,035 e-cigarette explosions that were reported between 2015 and 2017.
Despite the serious health risks linked to vaping, Juul and other e-cigarette devices remain trendy in the pop culture scene. Many researchers attribute the Juuling fad to the company’s initial advertising strategies, which involved a heavy presence on social media. A group of researchers from Stanford University analyzed how Juul allegedly “exploited social media and the tastes of young adults to target a youth market.” The studies revealed how the company utilized a variety of social media tactics, including advertising by online influencers, using catchy hashtags and creating colorful ad campaigns to attract a younger crowd. To further entice users, Juul released a selection of flavorful e-liquids, which included mango, strawberry lemonade, cappuccino and cotton candy.
In an effort to rein in the “youth vaping epidemic,” states, cities and universities across the nation have given the green light on vaping bans. In July 2019, the Berkeley City Council unanimously voted to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, which includes e-liquids and “electronic nicotine delivery systems.” The ban was initially proposed in order to “prevent youth and young adults from having easy access to the potentially addicting products,” according to Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley.
While e-cigarette restrictions are taking effect around California, consumers are also fighting back against e-cigarette corporations with claims that the devices are harmful to human health. The first wrongful death lawsuit was filed by the mother of a Florida teenager who alleges that her son’s death was caused by years of e-cigarette use. An otherwise healthy teenager, Daniel David Wakefield reportedly started vaping after he was “exposed to JUUL advertising at age 15,” according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Other lawsuits against Juul are expected to unravel as more information about the health effects of vaping is discovered.
It’s now been several months since the first case of a vaping-related lung disease was reported to the CDC, and there does not appear to be an end in sight. Although Juul representatives claim that their devices are only meant for adults who have previously struggled with smoking addictions, thousands of young people will likely continue using e-cigarettes like it’s their favorite accessory, under the apparent guise that e-cigarettes are perfectly harmless. Safer does not mean safe, and until the health implications of vaping are more widely understood, individuals will continue to suffer at the hands of their e-cigarettes.
Lauren Sandford is a staff writer for ConsumerSafety.org, a consumer advocacy organization dedicated to arming consumers with the information and resources to recover financial losses caused by unsafe products and conditions.