Social media may be creating a new generation of smokers

Photo by Julian Pineda | The Signal

A recent study conducted by Georgia State professors found that the noted decline in youth tobacco consumption may not have fully accounted for the rapid growth in JUUL usage.

JUUL, a discreet, non-combustible vaping pen has only been on the market for a little over three years. However, since beginning in 2015, sales across the e-cigarette market have increased by $200 million every fiscal quarter.

The Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration issue annual reports to keep track of tobacco usage and how the tobacco industry is marketing its products. The most recent report, according to Georgia State Associate Professor Doctor Jidong Huang, showed a consistent decline in tobacco usage among children and young adults, while the e-cigarette industry simultaneously reported dramatically low marketing expenditures.

The drastic shift in numbers led Huang, along with his fellow researchers, to ask, “Why have we noticed a lot of kids and teens using [JUUL], but the national survey shows a decline in use of e-cigarettes among youth?”

The answer was found in the hands of young adults across the country.

JUUL claims to be an alternative to combustible cigarettes, intended for adult smokers who are looking to transition to a less harmful method. The company has repeatedly stated that it is not intended for children or people who have never smoked before.

Huang explained that efficient, low-cost marketing through Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat could be what gave JUUL such a jump in sales. For decades, federal regulations have prohibited advertising of tobacco products through traditional media such as television, radio and print. However, social media marketing has become increasingly popular and difficult to regulate.

Consequentially, those who see advertising for products like JUUL tend to be heavy social media users, such as teens and young adults. Conversely, JUUL’s intended audience, older adult smokers who typically pay closer attention to traditional media, are less exposed to such heavy advertising.

“Parents and educators should be concerned. We know that people using social media are predominately kids and young adults and are heavily influenced by their peers. When kids and young adults are exposed to images or videos of their friends using JUUL, it’s likely that kids and young adults are going to use those products,” Huang said.

Though federal regulation can prevent the company itself from advertising, it could be a potential infringement of first amendment rights for the government to prohibit individual users from promoting the product on their own.

Typically, a JUUL “pod” carries about as much nicotine as an entire 20-pack of cigarettes. According to Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, this highly addictive chemical obtained from tobacco can have lasting effects on the brain, particularly for kids and young adults who are still developing.

“We market our products responsibly, following strict guidelines to have material directed toward adult smokers and not to youth audiences,” says JUUL’s website. Though JUUL is said to be intended for adults, product design has the potential to be most appealing to younger people, with colorful stickers to decorate the pen and flavors like crème brulee, apple and mint.

“We’ve heard a lot of anecdotal evidence from students, particularly about JUUL, and there is a lot of concern among teachers and administrators,” Huang said.

This anecdotal evidence is prevalent among high school students, including those from metro Atlanta.

Two metro-area students who wished to remain anonymous told The Signal that students in their high school can be seen using JUUL during school hours in hallways, bathrooms and even classrooms. “Some kids will wear long sleeves and blow it into their arm so the teachers can’t tell,” said one student. “It’s pretty commonplace, and to be honest, it smells nice,” said the other.

Both students said that young JUUL users are aware of the nicotine content and its effects, and are choosing to find the highest nicotine amount possible. “They want the buzz throughout the day,” the students said. One student reported being able to illegally purchase a JUUL from a local vape shop that allegedly did not ask for ID.

Despite these reports and similar stories that can be found across the internet from Reddit to Twitter, JUUL remains steadfast in its claims against supporting the sale of tobacco to minors, saying, “We have pledged an initial investment of $30 million over the next three years dedicated to independent research, youth and parent education and community engagement.”

Though Huang projects that social media marketing for JUUL and similar products will only increase, he believes the prevention of tobacco use among youth is possible. Ad campaigns, education, increased sales tax on tobacco products and smoke-free policies are all ideas that Huang thinks the government could take into account.