History Repeating Itself: The FDA’s Response to a Dangerous New Trend

For at least the last decade (as long as I can remember growing up), the health risks of tobacco and smoking cigarettes were obvious.  The movement to raise awareness about the dangers of smoking was well underway, as television commercials, printed advertisements, and teachers were educating young people about nicotine’s addictive qualities and the link between smoking and certain cancers.  Growing up in the 1990s–2000s, there was no doubt in our minds smoking was bad.

As times progress, obviously so does technology.  Every day it seems like technology endlessly advances as new and better gadgets hit the shelves. Better phones, better cameras, everything.  Now, however, the tobacco industry has intersected with the tech industry as the popular e-cigarette, or Juul, has gone viral. You likely see people smoking these thumb-drive looking gadgets on a daily basis.  Juul, as a company and brand, does not hide that their products contain nicotine and that nicotine is an addictive substance.  They market themselves as the first viable alternative for adult smokers. Their website even warns “smoking is bad for your health, and those who don’t currently use nicotine products should not start.” Even with this effort to promote safety and health, the e-cigarette craze has brought with it a great deal of health problems and arguably caused new risks rather than merely creating an alternative to old ones.  Why is it that young people, who have always known the dangers of cigarettes, start using the Juul?  Is it Juul’s marketing and targeting techniques?  Is it our inherent need in 2018 to have the newest, coolest technology?  This, of course, is hard to say.  But the problems are real, and the FDA has now stepped in and has particularly focused on Juul’s risks towards young people.

So, what is a Juul and how is it different from a cigarette? The Juul is a compact, USB-shaped vaping device. It is similar to other e-cigarettes, says cardiologist Holly Middlekauff, M.D., professor of medicine and physiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.  “The liquid is pretty much the same. It has solvents, nicotine, and flavorings,” Middlekauff told MensHealth.com. The solvents help deliver the nicotine and flavors in the form of tiny particles into the lungs. Unlike other e-cigarettes, the Juul is compact and rechargeable; and additionally has an internal temperature-regulating mechanism that prevents it from overheating or even exploding. The Juul has become particularly popular on social media, especially among young people. But as trendy as it is, the device still contains nicotine and is a major health concern, say medical experts.

In April 2018, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced that he was forming a Youth Tobacco Prevention Plan aimed at stopping youth tobacco usage.  The FDA led a surprise inspection of the headquarters of Juul Labs in late September, retrieving more than a thousand documents it said were related to the company’s sales and marketing practices.  The FDA said it was particularly interested in whether Juul deliberately targeted minors as consumers.  “The new and highly disturbing data we have on youth use demonstrates plainly that e-cigarettes are creating an epidemic of regular nicotine use among teens,” the FDA said in a statement. “It is vital that we take action to understand and address the particular appeal of, and ease of access to, these products among kids.”  The agency has given Juul and four other e-cigarette manufacturers a 60-day deadline to produce plans showing how they will limit access to teenagers.  It will certainly be interesting to see if this trend will go out of style soon, or if the FDA will need to take further steps to re-teach our youth the dangers of nicotine and cigarettes.