By James Wellemeyer
Sophie, a 19-year-old University of Vermont student from Yardley, Pa., makes over $200 a week delivering pizzas and spends a significant chunk of that on a habit that she wishes she had never picked up two years ago.
“I spend $25 a week on pods, which is pretty common for people that Juul often, but there are definitely people that spend more,” Sophie told MarketWatch. Sophie is a pseudonym, and so are the names of the other teens quoted in this story. None of them wanted to be identified as Juul users by future employers who might Google /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG -3.08% them.
She’s referring to the e-cigarette produced by Juul Labs, the $16 billion tobacco company that says it wants to help adult smokers quit cigarettes but that’s been accused of marketing its products to young people who haven’t yet started.
Ted Kwong, a spokesman for Juul Labs, said the company’s early ad campaigns featuring bright colors and photos of young people “did not accurately represent our goal” but insists the organization “never marketed to anyone underage.”
Following heavy criticism and a warning from the FDA, Juul announced its intention in November 2018 to pull sweet-flavored nicotine liquid pods including mango and creme, from stores and make them online-only products. Research suggests those fruity flavors are a prime driver in getting young people to try vaping, a study by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine found.
Pulling the pods from stores has made Juuling a more expensive habit for some teens to maintain. A pack of four pods, regardless of the flavor, is still priced at $15.99 on Juul’s website, but online buyers need to prove they’re 21 years old to complete their purchase. So teens have to find other sources, and prices are rising.
“It’s super hard to find mango and creme,” Sophie said. Like the mint, tobacco, and menthol flavors that haven’t been removed from stores, a pack of four mango or creme pods used to cost between $20 and $25 at brick-and-mortar stores or from third parties. Now they’re going for as much as $35, teens said. Some teens are buying them from smoke shops that still have a few left in stock.
Others are getting them from websites that don’t request age verification, like Ozone Smoke, which sells packs of four mango and creme pods for $28.95 each. (Ozone Smoke did not have a representative available immediately to comment).
‘Pod dealers’ help teens feed their habit for a price
Most high-school and middle school students can’t buy from smoke shops because they aren’t 18 and won’t purchase online because they don’t want the products shipped to their parents’ home or charged to a parent’s credit card. That’s where “pod dealers” come into play. These dealers, who are typically over 21, will buy the pods online or in stores and then resell them at a slightly higher price to younger users, teens told MarketWatch. The prices depend on the flavor. A pack of four mint, menthol, or tobacco pods goes for about $20. Four mango or creme pods can now cost upwards of $30 from a dealer because of the new regulations that limit access.
For teens who are addicted to Juuling, like Sophie, it’s common to go through about four pods each week. The annual cost of that generally crosses the $1,000 mark and can now reach beyond $1,500 for those who want mango or creme pods.
Juul says using its products is cheaper than smoking. For legal users, that’s the case. Four Juul pods, which cost $15.99 on Juul’s site, contain about 100 cigarettes worth of nicotine. One hundred cigarettes, on average, cost about $31, according to Tobacco-Free Kids. But for teens with a nicotine addiction, the price discrepancy between Juuling and smoking is no longer that wide. “If you’re addicted and you’re buying mango or creme pods, you’re probably now dropping that much each week anyway,” Jacob, a rising sophomore at New York University who has been Juuling for almost two years now, said of the difference.
Extra money goes to pods
Some teens say they spend the majority of their extra money on Juul pods. Sophie, who delivers pizza 15 hours a week, said that’s “100% the case” for her. Nicole, a high-school junior from Pittsburgh without a source of income of her own, said the same.
But this isn’t the case for everyone. Multiple teens who spoke to MarketWatch said they spend only about $30 per month and are sticking to mint, menthol, or tobacco to keep the price down. These teens say they don’t go through as many packs either because their nicotine addiction isn’t as strong or because they are trying to stop Juuling altogether.
Vaping is on the rise among teens
Even as some teens actively try to quit, the number of kids starting to vape is rising. From 2017 to 2018, the percentage of high-school students using e-cigarettes jumped from 11.7% to 20.8%, according to the FDA. It rose among middle schoolers as well, now sitting at approximately 5% for the demographic.
“The rapid rise in vaping among teens is a concern to the entire prevention community,” Ashley Frazier, a representative at the drug abuse prevention organization D.A.R.E., told MarketWatch. “While some teens and perhaps even some of their parents may believe this is not a high-risk activity, nicotine is extremely addictive, and young brains are at an even higher risk of becoming addicted to nicotine.”
Only 37% of teens who used a Juul in the past month knew that all of Juul’s flavors contain nicotine, a 2018 Tobacco Control study found.
But even if kids did know the risks of Juuling, they wouldn’t necessarily stop.
For one, Juuling is considered cool, and if your friends do it, you’ll do it, too. “Friends are showing other friends the product and getting their friends hooked in this massive chain,” Jacob Chang, the director of insights at Gen Z marketing agency JUV Consulting, explained to MarketWatch. “Gen Z as a generation trusts their friends for new recommendations more than any other method.”
And studies say that traditional tobacco cigarette smokers who know the risks continue to smoke. Researchers at Georgia State University’s Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science found in a 2017 project that smokers who understood their heightened chance of developing lung cancer and other diseases regret starting to smoke but generally don’t quit.
That’s the case for Sophie. She told MarketWatch that she isn’t working on breaking her habit. “It would take too much time,” she said.
New regulations are on the horizon
Federal officials and lawmakers are hoping to curb the vaping trend among teens with new restrictions. In March, the FDA released draft rules stating that beginning in August 2021, e-cigarette manufacturers will need to get FDA approval to continue to sell flavored products that are already on the market, and they’ll also need to get their marketing tactics approved by the agency.
Earlier this month the FDA sent warning letters to companies that have paid social media influencers to promote vaping products on Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR -2.85% and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB -2.70% . Juul Labs wasn’t mentioned by name in these letters. And in May, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine introduced a bill to raise the federal smoking age from 18 to 21.
Whether raising the legal age would actually solve the problem is another question.
Haley, a rising senior at a private New Jersey high school, told MarketWatch she would continue to Juul and so would her friends. “I’m 16 now, so I’m already doing it underage if the age is 18,” she said.
Juul Labs has come out in favor of raising the smoking age, but a New York Times investigation found that Juul lobbyists have simultaneously pushed for fewer state restrictions on flavored pods .