The meteoric rise of the trendy electronic cigarette Juul has left school officials scrambling to educate parents and kids on its potential health risks. The sleek, digital-like design and tiny pods filled with flavored nicotine juice have caught on fast with underage teens, who can easily hide the tiny vapor puffs in their sleeves and charge the device on school laptops.
The device resembles an electronic thumb drive, so one Montgomery County school district took the unusual step of banning all USB drives when officials became aware that some of the students were using their school-provided Chromebooks to charge the Juul products.
"They do look very much like flash drives," said Deborah Wheeler, superintendent of the 4,100-student Upper Dublin School District. Wheeler said that real USB drives were not needed to store school materials, and that while only one student has been disciplined for possessing a Juul on school grounds, Wheeler believes there are more hiding at the middle and high schools.
Juuls (pronounced "jewel") have also become a big hit on college campuses, said Frank T. Leone, director of comprehensive smoking treatment programs at Penn Medicine.
"Young folks see using the Juul or Juuling as very different from using the electronic cigarettes or vaping," said Leone. "It has the extra panache of being digitally oriented."
But Leone cautioned that using inhaled nicotine is like participating in an organic chemistry experiment.
"Nicotine has its own set of risks," Leone said.
Juul Labs is a spinoff of Pax Labs, which was founded in 2007 by two Stanford University design graduates, James Monsees and Adam Bowen, both smokers, who were out to create an easy-to-use alternative to the tobacco cigarette. Their goal was to help smokers eliminate cigarettes, said Ashley Gould, chief administrative officer of the San Francisco-based company.
A starter kit, which can be found in stores and online, sells for $49.99 and includes the rechargeable device and USB charger and four pods in various flavors, such as Fruit Medley or Creme Brûlée. A four-pack of Mango or Cool Cucumber pods, which has about the same amount of nicotine as a smoker would get from a pack of cigarettes, costs $15.99.
The success of the product appears to have taken the company by surprise. In just two years, Juul has amassed 46.8 percent of the U.S. electronic cigarette market, the Winston-Salem Journal reported.
"Obviously, we think we created a very compelling device for adult smokers," Gould said. She said that while the Juul design was not meant to appeal to underage smokers, that has been an unintended consequence.
"Youth are somehow getting a hold of our product, and yes, there is an appeal for it that we are against," said Gould. "We don't want them to use the product."
At Vegas Vapes in Bryn Mawr, manager Justin Capps described the products, which took off in the region about a year ago, as "very, very" popular.
Capps said it is not unusual to see parents with adult children both buying the product, he said. The legal age to purchase tobacco and vaping products is 18 in Pennsylvania and 21 in New Jersey, he said.
The electronic cigarettes have the ability to put nicotine, a highly addictive substance, into the brain, Leone said.
When the chemicals are dragged across a heating element, they turn into a gas that is transferred by the lungs into the body, where they are eventually metabolized by the liver.
Leone cautioned that not enough is known about what adverse effects that process will have, but that researchers do know that electronic cigarette use increases the risks of becoming a smoker.
"Kids who are exposed to cigarette aerosol are two to three times as likely to go on and become smokers as adults," Leone said.
And what's equally worrying is that parents are sometimes unaware Juul is for smokers.
Dave Dobbins, COO of Truth Initiative, a national nonprofit anti-smoking group, recalled parents asking if they should buy their kids Juuls for Christmas. "There is some education work that needs to be done," he said.
Parents should know that Juuling is prevalent in middle and high schools and that it delivers high levels of nicotine – about 85 percent of that of a cigarette – in an addictive way, Dobbins said.
"This is a concerning product," said Dobbins. "It looks like more than just a fad."
Social media is a window into the growing use of Juuls. In June, there were 10,000 Juul-related posts on Twitter. By December that number had climbed to 150,000, Dobbins said.
Locally, a video of two Conestoga High School students that has made the rounds on social media, more for the use of racial slurs, also shows one of the girls using a Juul.
In an email, officials at the Tredyffrin/Eastown School District in Chester County stated that using a Juul "would be considered a code of conduct violation, which would be enforced."
Calls to local school districts, including Philadelphia, about Juuling on campus went largely unanswered — though two Montgomery County districts acknowledged the use of the product in their schools.
On Tuesday, wellness counselors in the Lower Merion School District sent a letter to middle and high school parents about the Juuling trend, suggesting parents talk "openly and honestly" with children about not only Juuling but also drugs and alcohol.
"Based on conversations with Lower Merion School District students, we know Juuls are used here as well," the letter states.
At Upper Dublin, the district is planning a presentation in the spring for parents and students by the drug-prevention group NOPE, Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education.