JUUL and other vapes: the safer choice?

As students switch from traditional cigarettes to vaporizers,
experts question the health impact

By Liam Rademacher & Jack Caron

Eric Dunn ’20, began his vape use in high school without having any prior tobacco addiction. Cigarettes weren’t his thing, and he and his friends started to vape in their teens. Dunn owned and experimented with a variety of vaporizer brands, styles, and e-juices. His vape use continued frequently throughout high school and college, and at the end of last summer, Dunn purchased his first JUUL vape, a specific brand of vaporizer gaining traction with youth and on college campuses.

In the fall semester of 2016, St. Michael’s College set forth an initiative for the campus to be completely tobacco free. The policy’s purpose is “to reduce harm from tobacco use and secondhand smoke, provide an environment that encourages persons to be tobacco-free, and promote a campus culture of wellness.” The detriments of smoking on an individual’s health have been in the public sphere for some time now, yet nicotine addiction hasn’t disappeared. Vaporizers have been cited as a safer alternative, and there has been some research to suggest that. A collaborative study between the Centersww for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and University College London found that subjects who vaped while continuing cigarette use had significantly higher levels of carcinogens and toxins than subjects who strictly vaped.

The study, however, does not address the health effects of nicotine itself and the level of nicotine in vaporizers. Professor Ari Kirshenbaum of the psychology department received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct a three year study on e-cigarettes; his research centers around nicotine’s effect on the brain and the psychological consequences of nicotine exposure, specifically in youth. “The wealth of scientific evidence does suggest that it’s the nicotine in tobacco that makes tobacco dependency-producing,” Kirshenbaum said. “Nicotine by itself does have some health ramifications; in fact, the majority of insecticides are nicotine based. It is toxic in higher doses, and even at lower doses there is a cardiac response.”

Infographic by Liam Rademacher

There are also behavioral consequences to nicotine. current population data shows that those who are addicted to harder drugs such as heroin and methamphetamines began cigarette use at a young age. “The evidence shows that if there were to be a ‘gateway drug,’ nicotine would be it. I do have some concerns; what is nicotine doing to the brain that makes people more likely to move onto these other drugs, or is it a matter of availability? People who are going to use these hard drugs have to start somewhere, and they’re going to start with something that’s more available, like the tobacco products.”

While vaporizers come in many different shapes and functionalities across many different brands, JUUL vapes are currently rising in popularity. Its popularity arises from its discreet size, easy operation, and its higher concentration of nicotine when compared to other vapes. The vaporizer is similar in size to a USB drive, and uses a USB adapter to charge. Disposable e-juice cartridges, called JUUL pods, are inserted into the end of the device to produce the vapor, which can come in four different flavors. According to JUUL’s website, each JUUL pod is equivalent in nicotine to 1 pack of cigarettes, or 200 puffs. When the JUUL pod empties, one simply has to pop another back in, and can throw out the previous pod.

“I started smoking cigarettes when I was 15,” said Elena Lloyd ’19, an education major. “Then I came to college and I’d go through a pack every two days.” As her college career continued, opportunities arose in Lloyd’s life where she wasn’t allowed to have the smell of cigarettes lingering on her. She began working at a preschool in an environment where she did not want to expose children to any lasting scent of smoke. Lloyd was able to kick her habit for a few weeks until she returned to school this fall, where she began smoking again. With the continuation of her smoking routine, Lloyd was becoming concerned about her health, the possible lingering smell, and the cost.

In a move to mitigate those concerns, Lloyd decided to invest in a JUUL, citing the discreet odor and health benefits as reasons. “Now with a JUUL, I don’t have to smell like cigarettes and I don’t have to smoke butts. It’s good for my health and my professional appearance.”

Kirshenbaum notes that while vaporizers and other e-cigarettes beat out other tobacco products in terms of health, there are not enough conclusive studies to call them a riskless product.

“If we had to guess, vaporizers are going to be much safer than combustible tobacco products, but they’re not riskless,” Kirshenbaum said. “We have to accept that when we use e-cigarettes, we are essentially being guinea pigs because very little is known about them, and there is a lot of variability in the product itself.”

With so many e-cigarettes products on the market, cheaply-produced vapes have been found to produce amount of aldehyde and other toxins, and because many e-juices contain nicotine, the risk of addiction still runs strong through vaporizer use and nicotine withdrawal is a reality.

“When we look at the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, they include psychological variables—things like depression, anxiety, irritability—and I would want people to know that when they pick up an e-cigarette, odds are pretty good that they can become dependent upon it, and they’ll end up having the symptoms.”

One of the reasons Dunn chose the JUUL brand specifically is because of its high nicotine content. “A JUUL pod is 50 milligrams of nicotine, whereas I normally used to vape around three milligrams. E-juices typically range from three, six, 12 milligrams.” Once JUUL hit the market, competitors began coming out with higher nicotine-concentrated e-juices. Dunn often manually refills his JUUL pods with JUUL e-juice and other high nicotine juices rather than purchasing more pods in order to cut back on some of the cost.

Dunn said he recognizes that the higher concentration of nicotine makes JUUL and similar products extremely addicting, and wouldn’t recommend JUULs or other potent vapes for everyone.
“If you smoke a lot of cigarettes, I would say go for it, otherwise you’re just going to get addicted to nicotine.”