“No device right now is as worrisome as the Juul — because of both its explosion in popularity and the unusually heavy dose of nicotine it delivers.”
“I don’t recall any fad, legal or illegal, catching on in this way,” says Meg Kenny, the assistant head of school at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, Vermont, who has worked in education for 20 years. Students at her school are Juuling in bathrooms, in class, and on the bus. Because it’s against the school’s rules, they hide the devices in ceiling tiles and in their bras and underwear.
According to a Vox article, the JUUL brand made up more than half of all the e-cigarette sales in the US, which grew by 40% to US$1.16 billion in 2017. By all accounts, JUUL is a very successful Silicon Valley startup that is just over 3-years old and valued at US$15 billion. JUUL calls its products the ‘the iPhones of vaping’, with its sleek design and fruit-flavored vape juices.
Teenagers love JUUL. Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are filled with #juul references. These days, downtime at college is basically all about posting Stories of yourself JUULing to Drake. — Mashable
Yes, ‘Juuling’ is now a verb, just like ‘Googling’ or ‘Instagramming’. There’s even an entire accessories market developing around JUUL products like skins for the vaping stick and compatible juice pods from China because the original ones are often out of stock.
The writer, investor and entrepreneur in me were all intrigued. Was JUUL going to be the next Apple? This is a story about my journey and research into e-cigarettes, or vaping, as it is commonly known now. At the end of it is a revelation that exposes money politics influenced by big corporations and hypocritical governments. But to get there, we shall first have to explore the world of vaping and the debates surrounding e-cigarettes a bit.
Let me say upfront that I am not an advocate of smoking. My Dad smoked for 30 years. As a teenager he was a gymnast. After decades of smoking he was breathless after just two swings on the parallel bars. He died at the age of 52 from cancer of the nose and throat. So I saw first-hand the harm that cigarettes can do.
I first tried smoking in my mid-20’s, stressed and bored from my job on the trading floor of an investment bank and desperately looking for an excuse to disappear downstairs for some fresh air. I have to admit that nicotine does relief stress and anxiety quite well. I’ve been a social smoker very occasionally since; one or two sticks during periods of high stress or a night out at the club in my younger days. I don’t like the smell, tar and all the stuff that comes with burning tobacco though, and the effect it has on my stamina as a sports enthusiast. So even though nicotine is supposedly highly addictive, I have never been addicted to it.
But I do recognize that smoking is an individual choice. It is no different from choosing to do skydiving or eating a tub of ice cream every day. And since most countries do not allow minors to smoke, then adults have to right to risk their health if they so wish.
But passive smoking is a different issue. Your lifestyle choice shouldn’t affect others around you. That is why many developed countries have banned smoking in public places. I’m supportive of this because I don’t like coming home smelling like a chimney or taking in carcinogens when it wasn’t my choice to do so.
So I applauded when I first heard about e-cigarettes. I read that it pretty much solves the passive smoking problem, and that the e-cigarette vapors contained none of the other harmful stuff in tobacco except for nicotine which is what every smoker craved in the whole act of smoking anyway.
So why is the world increasingly banning it, if this invention has taken away so many of the ills of a century old, society pervading addiction and health hazard?
This list on Lonely Planet shows where e-cigarettes are banned. You would have thought that it might be some more advanced countries concerned with lack of research on side effects and addiction, but no, many of the countries banning it are developing countries where people are still allowed to smoke normal cigarettes in restaurants and other crowded public places. The list includes Argentina, Brazil, Cambodia, Indonesia, Mexico, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, Egypt and many of the middle east countries where Shisha (water pipes for smoking tobacco) were invented and commonly smoked today.
Some of these countries do a lot more than slap your wrist if you violate the vaping ban. In India where vaping is banned in six states, a man in Punjab was sentenced to three years jail and a fine for allegedly selling and using e-cigarettes. In Thailand you could be jailed for up to 10 years for possession. In my home country Singapore, the fine is S$10,000 (US$7,245) and/or six months jail.
Many articles have been written for and against e-cigarettes, so I shall just do a quick summary here. There are two key arguments against vaping:
- Vaping has potential health risks — from the nicotine and the other potentially harmful stuff that are used to make the vaping ‘juice’ — that cannot be determined until long term studies (meaning those lasting 25–30 years) has been done to monitor the effects.
- JUUL has made vaping so cool and trendy among minors that governments around the world are citing it as a reason for banning e-cigarettes completely. They say vaping is becoming a gateway to teens getting addicted to nicotine permanently.
The statistics of teen vaping in the US is indeed alarming — 16.2% of 12th graders have vaped in the last month, according to this survey by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2016. A US FDA survey counted half a million middle school students and 1.7 million high school students vaping in the last 30 days in 2016. If we get another whole new generation hooked on vaping, wouldn’t that defeat all the years of legislation, taxes and public education effort spent in many advance countries to discourage smoking?
But here the logic becomes pretty strange. Why can’t vaping be controlled with minimum age laws for purchase just like normal cigarettes? After all, vaping requires constant purchase of juice pods too. If we checked IDs at cigarette sale counters, why not do the same at vape shops? Why ban it all together?
Ok. Forget that for a second and let’s get back to argument #1 — the potential long term health risks of nicotine and the rest of the chemicals in vape juice. This NBC report cited a study proving that vape juice also contains some of the same harmful chemicals found in normal cigarettes, especially the flavored ones.
But on the other hand, many clinicians and scientists have came out to say vaping clearly contains far less harmful substances than normal cigarettes. According to this article in Today, a mainstream newspaper in Singapore, the Public Health England says 5% or less, and the US FDA says “e-cigarettes are likely to be far less harmful than combustible tobacco cigarettes”.
Here’s Professor John Britton from the Royal College of Physicians in London testifying on BBC that e-cigarettes are far less harmful and have almost no passive smoking effect on others around you.
Vaping "much safer" than cigarettes.
A report today by The Royal College of Physicians says we should put aside any concerns about vaping as it is "much…
“Nicotine itself is not a particularly hazardous drug; something on par with the effects that you get from caffeine.” — Professor John Britton
Oh my god, let’s ban coffee and tea. And aspirin too, which has much more caffeine than either!
And so the logic gets weirder and weirder. Why are governments around the world banning vaping completely and not smoking? Whichever side is telling the truth on the scientific studies, an outright ban on vaping doesn’t make sense. Then we should just ban cigarettes too. What about alcohol? Ban that and we would have no more underage drinking problems. Or drunken adult brawls in bars for that matter.
One of the arguments put forward by health authorities against vaping is pretty much self-sabotage by the e-cigarette industry itself. Manufacturers have always positioned e-cigarettes as a means of helping smokers to quit. The countries banning it are now arguing that there are no conclusive evidence of its efficacy in achieving this, although there are testimonies from smokers and health experts all over the internet saying it does.
Whichever way the argument goes, the reality is, vaping is quite simply, just an alternative to smoking itself. But it seems to be an alternative that has less harmful effect on the smoker and those around him. I’m always one to put my money where my mouth is, so I decided to try out vaping and decide for myself if it was indeed unsafe for society or just misunderstood.
I am born and bred in Singapore, a little island with strict drug laws and a highly paternalistic style of governance. Even vaping in the privacy of your own home has been made illegal since February 2018. I can understand leaning too much towards caution on new products and inventions. But vaping is also completely banned in Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and even Brazil! These are places where guns, corruption and poverty run amok, and the governments take such a tough stance against e-cigarettes? One cannot help but wonder if rumors of behind the scenes lobbying by big tobacco companies have merit, since these countries have many smokers and are big markets for them.
Half-time. Let me stress again that I’m not an advocate of smoking. I am fit and youthful looking, and I’m all for keeping in shape physically and mentally. But in order to satisfy the amateur investigative journalist in me, I ventured out to some vape shops in Hong Kong (where it is legal) to find out for myself what the fuss is all about.
I visited three vape shops. The first one was located in a light industry office building. The door was closed but not locked. When I walked in, two attractive young ladies in their late 20’s to early 30’s were sitting at the counter chatting with the two young men manning the shop. One attended to me and spoke fluent English. He said they didn’t carry JUUL and recommended a French brand called ‘Bo’ to me. The design was very similar but slightly bigger. It was a simple plug and play operation; various flavored juice pods fit into a USB chargeable stick.
I tried a mint flavored juice pod and my expectation was validated. Since vaping was largely breathing in solvents mixed with nicotine, there was none of the unpleasant smell or taste that comes with tobacco cigarettes. Sure, the air in the shop smelled thick with the various flavors that had been released into it, but if your friend was standing in front of you smoking a non-flavored vape juice, you probably wouldn’t notice any smell at all unless he blew right into your face two feet away.
So my first impression was good. I asked about various devices and prices and then left to seek out a second vape shop. This next one was on the second floor of a row of shops in a popular tourist district. The transparent door was kept locked and you had to press a buzzer to get in. The place was filled with 5–6 teens, just hanging around a sitting area chatting while some of their friends shopped. My guess is 14–17 years old, children of western expats working in Hong Kong. Clearly they were regulars based on the way they interacted with the owner. I overheard one choosing a vaping device to replace her current one which had just broke. I inquired about prices and tried out various vaping devices that were sleek and compact in design.
The next day I went to a third shop in downtown Central where I found a JUUL and bought one. It commanded a clear premium in price compared to the other brands. And the shop owner told me that juice pods weren’t always in stock due to its popularity — pretty much the case in the US too based on what I’d read online.
I vaped on and off for the next couple of days I was in Hong Kong. It was actually much more pleasant relative to normal cigarettes. It doesn’t numb your tongue and irritate your nose the way cigarette smoke did; plus you didn’t have to carry a lighter and pack around with you. There was also no urgency to finish the pack before it oxidized and go bad. Vape juice could last for quite long unspoiled in the pod even if you didn’t finish it within a couple of days, unlike normal cigarettes.
Two things became clear to me by now. One, vaping was clearly cheaper than smoking if you took in the same amount of nicotine per day, based on the prices of the devices and vape juices. Two, vaping seems to be cool and in for the teens in Hong Kong too.
In the end I gave my JUUL stick and pods to my Hong Kong friends before I left for the airport. I didn’t want to risk a ten thousand dollars fine. But after my research and short hands-on experiment I would love to convince all my hopelessly addicted smoker friends to convert to e-cigarettes, for the sake of their health and those around them. But I can’t, cause my country has banned it.
So my personal opinion on the issue of vaping is this: e-cigarettes are indeed better for both the smoker and the people around him. But vaping has certainly created an unsettling appeal to teens which must be curbed somehow. Otherwise we might have more vapers in the next generation than smokers in this generation.
So it seems there is genuine cause for concern here. Maybe even justification for a complete ban in Singapore where I live. After all, I would hate to see young teens spending their day hanging out in a vape shop like I saw in Hong Kong.
But hang on, something even stranger was uncovered when I did a search on JUUL the company on LinkedIn. Their Asia Pacific regional headquarters was recently set up in Singapore, and they are recruiting senior executives, including a ‘Government Affairs Director’ and ‘Marketing Director’. According to CNBC, this office is one of their first in their overseas expansion.
Now how did that happen? My government, the bastion of strict laws and youth protection, where a pack of cigarettes is about three times the price of other countries due to import taxes, letting in the number one concern of the US public on teen vaping into Singapore as their regional HQ? Under our laws, it is not even possible for the JUUL regional HQ here to have their own products onsite, much less demonstrate or use it!
Perhaps because it is a US$15 billion Silicon Valley startup funded by top venture capital funds?