The following article was recently posted in the New York Times, read the story there, or below:
On the day she turns 18, Lady Bird, the title character of Greta Gerwig’s much-praised film, goes to a convenience store and buys a lottery ticket, a copy of Playgirl and a pack of cigarettes. “Lady Bird’’ is set in the first years of the current millennium, and the fact that its heroine experiments with smoking is as much a part of the film’s historical aura as is the portrayal of someone paying for pornography in magazine form.
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that cigarette smoking among high school students had dropped to its lowest level in 24 years. Survey data from 2015 had shown that fewer than 11 percent of students now smoked cigarettes. Rates had peaked in 1997, when the figure was more than three times that, and remained in decline ever since.
By nearly every metric relating to personal vice, American teenagers have become virtually puritanical. Through the years, rates of illicit drug use have plummeted. Despite the crisis that opioids have inflicted on our collective well-being, teenagers have remained for the most part directly unharmed. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the percentage of 12th graders misusing pain medication dropped to 4.2 percent in 2017 from its height of 9.2 percent in 2004.
The same organization recently noted that the rates of binge drinking among eighth, 10th and 12th graders are well below what they were a decade ago. This is not because children have traded in Rolling Rock for Diet Sprite — even soda consumption has fallen. Beyond that, the C.D.C. reports that the percentage of high school students who are sexually active (defined as having had intercourse during the past three months) dropped to 30 percent in 2015 from 38 percent in 1991.
Were you given some time in Silicon Valley and asked to conjure a mechanism for adolescent rebellion well suited to our conformist, technocratic age, you might easily have come up with Juul, the e-cigarette brought to us by two former Stanford graduate students. In recent years, public health officials have grown increasingly concerned about the popularity of vaping among teenagers — omitting tobacco, e-cigarettes deliver warmed-up liquid nicotine turned into a vapor.
Last fall, Senator Chuck Schumer held a news conference on Staten Island denouncing e-cigarettes, and Juul in particular, as he urged the Federal Drug Administration to reverse a decision to delay the regulation of vaping devices. He was prompted by a new study indicating that one in five teenagers in New York State was using e-cigarettes, nearly twice the national average; the problem was particularly apparent in New York City and on Long Island.
Among affluent teenagers in and around Manhattan, particularly those in the private school world, where insurrection has largely meant coming home from college night and telling your parents that you are thinking about a big state school with great football, rather than, say, Wesleyan, Juul began to find its foothold about a year ago. The company’s founders James Monsees and Adam Bowen share a background in product design, and above all Juul is a good-looking object, a two-part system including a sleek temperature regulation device with a battery and a cartridge in colors seemingly inspired by the Farrow & Ball paint chart. The cartridge, or “pod,” contains the mouthpiece and the vaping liquid.
Resembling a flash drive, Juul conveys a sense of industry — you’re Juuling into your MacBook Air while you are cramming for your test on Theodore Dreiser and thinking about trigonometry — and it is so easy to conceal that, as one mother explained to me, she failed to notice that her daughter was vaping in the back seat of the car as she was driving.
The company’s position that Juul is intended strictly for “adult” smokers as its website repeatedly indicates, is belied by the menu of flavors in which the nicotine pods are offered. These include Mango, Cool Mint, Fruit Medley and Creme Brulee. As Anthony Charuvastra, a child psychiatrist and assistant professor at New York University’s Medical Center put it, “Who over 25 is looking for creme brulee as part of a smoking experience?”
Like all modern tech companies that attract tens of millions of dollars in venture capital funding, Juul believes it is doing something globally valuable, acting as “part of the solution to end combustible smoking,’’ as its marketing material proclaims. A “Mission & Values” statement on the company’s website declares that no minor should be in possession of Juul and argues that the company is working to combat underage use. In August, it instituted an age-verification system on its e-commerce site to try and prevent anyone under 21 from buying Juul products.
“James and Adam recognized a groundbreaking opportunity to apply industrial design to the smoking industry, which had not materially evolved in over one hundred years,” the Juul website also declares, indicating how little Silicon Valley can distinguish between what needs to be disrupted and what simply needs to go away.
When asked about Juul’s use by teenagers, the company said in a statement, “We condemn the use of our product by minors. We are fully committed to dramatically reducing the incidence of young people using Juul.”
The decades-long public-health campaign around traditional smoking has been so effective that children now are often horrified by the prospect, certain that if you have a cigarette today you will receive a lung cancer diagnosis by Purim. On New Year’s Eve, a friend, in Brooklyn, whose children had asked her to sign a contract promising that she would never have a cigarette, were disgusted to find some of the adults sneaking out to the stoop to smoke.
At the same time, many teenagers have been unable to absorb the message that vaping too carries risk. So it was with some misery and surprise that news of a new study at N.Y.U., released earlier this month, bounced around among teenagers in the city. The study had exposed lab mice to nicotine vapor for 12 weeks and researchers concluded that e-cigarettes can cause damage to DNA, thus impeding the ability of cells to repair themselves, and possibly increasing the risk of cancer and heart disease. Suddenly, for some at least, the reality sunk in.