From a special edition of Crosscurrents, this is part of a series of stories from students from the San Francisco Unified School District:
My friend Dandar Ganbold is vaping inside my car. He puts an e-cigarette that looks like a metallic USB called JUUL up to his mouth and inhales.
“It's like when you sit down for a long time and you get up you get dizzy and you get disoriented and like it feels like the world is moving like around you,” Ganbold says as he performs tricks, shaping his mouth into an “O” and breathing out circles of smoke.
“Yeah the head rush is basically what I imagine is what everyone is chasing when they use a JUUL product or like any other nicotine-based products,” Ganbold tells me.
We both graduated from Galileo High School in San Francisco this summer. His friends pushed him to try JUUL a few months ago, and now he vapes regularly, with his friends, during raves, or whenever he gets the chance.
“It's just another thing you can do. So I mean why not, right?” Ganbold says. “I mean I would definitely prefer the JUUL over a cigarette and like I would not actively use a cigarette ever. A cigarette is definitely bad, it just looks bad when you use it.”
The nicotine inside
The pods, or cartridges, inside a JUUL are loaded with with a concentrated juice cocktail of salts and organic acids found in tobacco leaves. My friend isn’t sure about the specifics of what’s inside a JUUL, but he knows about the nicotine inside. Each Juul pod contains as much nicotine as an entire pack of cigarettes. My friend calls himself a JUUL head, and says he’s hooked.
“I can say for a fact, the product itself is addictive. When I never used it, I was never like, ‘Hey, I want another hit, I want another JUUL, I want to do it,’” he says. “Only since starting to do it, it kind of makes you want more. And the want is increased by the people around you by the people who also want it more.”
JUUL shows up in schools
During my junior year at Galileo, I noticed the high school bathrooms smelled better, like signature JUUL flavors...mango, cool mint, and creme brulee. I saw people JUULing at parties. At first, I thought these vapes were just flavored, harmless water vapor. JUUL only hit the market in 2015. But sales have skyrocketed since, jumping nearly 800 percent this past year, according to Nielsen data.
The product was first brainstormed by two Stanford University product design graduates working on their thesis, and looking for a way to help adults find better alternatives to cigarettes.
JUUL declined to speak for this story, but a spokesperson sent me a statement saying, quote, “We cannot be more emphatic on this point: No young person or non-nicotine user should ever try JUUL.”
This past Spring, the Food and Drug Administration announced it was cracking down on underage vape sales. One day later, JUUL Labs pledged to spend $30 million dollars over three years to combat vaping among teens.
Cigarette use goes down, vaping jumps up
From an early age, teenagers like me are taught that cigarettes will yellow our teeth, make our bodies smell, and kill us. But JUUL is new, flavorful, sleek, and easy to hide from teachers and other adults.
Matthew Allen is a teacher at Galileo High School. I ask him if he looks out for common techniques, like kids sneaking underneath tables to vape or breathing into their sleeves.
“I’ve seen some window activity, blowing it up in the air quickly,” he tells me.
About a month ago, Allen spotted one of his students vaping during school hours. So he confiscated the e-cig device, telling the student that if he wanted it back, his parents could get in touch.
“I think the ease by which a student could use one of these devices is alarming, there’s no scent, there’s no set up. I don't really feel like I have the ability to go on a one man crusade and snatch all these vapes, I wouldn't want to snatch all this property anyway,” Allen says.
He’s a basketball coach, and tries to be a good, healthy role model for his students. “When I was in middle school, there were always these posters of longtime cigarette users. A picture of their lungs, and their brain, and the person missing a throat,” Allen says. “That’s because they had years of research to publish this information that was pretty indisputable.”
Allen says that JUUL is different because it’s relatively new, and schools and public health don't have the research and materials yet to know and explain how damaging it is.
Designing an addiction tool kit
Bonnie Halpern-Felsher is a pediatrics professor at Stanford University. When she noticed how popular vaping was becoming among teens in the last few years, she got to work to fill the information gap. Now she designs toolkits around teaching teenagers and young adults the harmful effects of smoking, and is used by many school districts in California, including here in San Francisco.
“When you talk to youth about the risks of any part of it it's very important not to just tell them no when it's bad it's harmful,” Bonnie Halpern-Felsher says. “It's more important to tell you look you're being manipulated look you're being targeted.That's what worked with cigarettes.”
There are signs teenagers in San Francisco are hearing the message. According to an anonymous survey done by the San Francisco Unified School District, e-cigarettes usage has also gone down among San Francisco teenagers, dropping by roughly 7 percent from 2015 to 2017. Around the country, e-cigs are still the most commonly used tobacco product among middle and high school students. And it is difficult for anyone to predict what technologies will hook kids next.
“I think it’s a total black box right now. I think the public health community needs to figure out ways to get ahead of it,” Halpern-Felsher says. We're going to wind up in the same situation otherwise, where we have a new product on the market we’re not ready for, and we’re not ready to do prevention.”
Reflections from a teenage vaper
Back in my car, my friend Dandar Ganbold hits JUUL over and over, probably about ten times. While we’re talking, he goes philosophical and psychological, back and forth about whether he considers himself addicted.
“Again, being addicted isn’t a state of mind, where you’re aware of being addicted, it’s a subconscious thing,” Ganbold says. “So even me, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m not addicted.’ But I’m still using it alone.”
My friend doesn’t have any plans to quit. “I always have that voice in the back of my head saying, ‘JUUL is bad because it hurts your reputation in front of certain people’,” Ganbold says. He says the JUUL advertisements aren’t why he vapes. If his friends stopped vaping, he says, he might too.
“Basically that’s how you can stop someone, like you have peer shunning peers just to say, ‘dude, don't do it’”, Ganbold says. “You know those people are the only people who like kind of stop you.”
Since this spring, people have filed at least three lawsuits against JUUL for what they say are deceptive marketing practices. The Massachusetts Attorney general is investigating whether JUUL is doing enough to keep minors from buying vaping products online.
For more stories from young reporters-in-training, check out this series from an audio storytelling workshop KALW held in partnership with the East Oakland Youth Development Center.