I lost my Juul virginity toward the end of junior year in the sketchiest of places—a Walmart parking lot. Slightly numbed by the intense heat (and the equally intense, expectant stares of my friends), I looked left, then right, took an embarrassingly small hit, and coughed vigorously for two minutes. The whole event was recorded, and the video is still brought up to this day.
At the time, having your first kiss or getting your first job didn’t seem like a rite of adolescent passage—trying a Juul or any vape, really, was of greater importance. I’d even argue that when one thinks of the modern teenager, it’s impossible to assemble an image without these e-cigarettes. Their prevalence escalated far and fast, too: in my school, the bathrooms were often eclipsed in puffs of smoke as the deans circled right outside the doors. Sure, measures were implemented to curb what a lot of publications have dubbed “an epidemic,” but it was laughably easy to not get caught. You just had to hide them well, or convince a clueless teacher that it was, in fact, your USB drive.
It’s easy to forget that the purpose of Juuls and products like it is to help adult smokers ease their transition to complete recovery; so much so that a Juul in the hands of anyone over 30 looks strange and out of place. That strangeness shows, even more than the company’s booming 2018 sales, that the Juul market has strayed pretty far from that original function, reaching the mouths and minds of a different, more enthusiastic demographic.
Many attribute this popularity to the Juul itself: the company’s marketing, while claiming to never cater to minors, has been proven to pander to the youth, especially in the early years after its launch. Take, for example, this ad, which shows a young model vaping in a somewhat glamorized way. Yet even after these campaigns were shut down, flavors like mango and crème brûlée continued to attract the same buyers. They taste good, and they’re small and easy to conceal—it’s a no-brainer why thousands of young people would be purchasing them.
But maybe we’ve been having the wrong why conversation. Maybe “they taste good” started the craze, but it isn’t what’s continued it; after all, the FDA banned fruity flavors from the Juul market last year. Maybe it comes back to the fundamental want for community, that aching desire to be in a room and build relationships even when you’re socially awkward as all hell. Maybe it’s that gnawing need to fit in, to seem well-adjusted, to be a part of something. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to find a college or high school party without the customary ritual of passing the Juul around. Like alcohol, Juuling is supposed to be a sign of adolescent rebellion—a big “fuck you” to the mundane routine of school, homework, and repeat.
Yet it isn’t a big “fuck you”—it’s a temporary “fuck you.” Because teenagers nowadays are largely focused on the short-term when it comes to a break from their ambitions and goals. No one knows the long-term health repercussions of e-cigarettes since they haven’t been around for that long. And right now, as we’re leaning into the vulnerable stages of our lives and grasping for straws at finding something to connect with those around us, Juuls and e-cigarettes are just…there.
Who knows how long they’ll stay?
By Sruthi Srinivas
Photograph by Elizabeth Renstrom for The New Yorker