It’s a newer vape product that resembles a sleek USB flash drive, while offering up sweet-smelling nicotine pods in flavors like mango, fruit medley and creme brulee.
Called Juul, the vaping device has lit up attention both for its popularity and health warnings that the slim rectangular design and sweet vapors make them appealing to youth.
The Juul can be held discreetly in the palm of a hand, tucked into a sleeve or hidden among the school supplies in a student’s backpack.
“Juul is designed to look like a USB flash drive, making it easy to conceal from unsuspecting teachers or families,” says a Spokane Regional Health District alert. “The devices have an unusually high nicotine concentration – a single cartridge is equivalent to one full pack of cigarettes.
“Juul also features nicotine cartridges available in many kid-friendly flavors.”
Area high school officials report only a few cases of confiscated Juul devices. Washington and Idaho laws prohibit anyone younger than age 18 from purchasing, possessing or obtaining vapor products, although Washington state lawmakers this past legislative session considered, but ultimately failed to pass, a proposal to raise the age to 21.
Oregon, Hawaii and California have raised the legal age to 21 for vaping and smoking products.
E-cigarettes deliver warmed-up liquid nicotine turned into a vapor to be inhaled, in lieu of tobacco smoke. The Juul retails for $39.99 and became available locally this past fall in a few retail outlets. A four-pack of its nicotine pods sells for $17.99, at Spokane Cigar & Tobacco on Division Street.
When “juuling,” even the vapor “cloud” is discreet, much smaller than other vaping products, said Kamieo Katz, store manager at Spokane Cigar. The store has had challenges keeping the product in stock because of high demand, she said.
“They are very popular,” Katz said. “People who work in businesses say they like it because it is compact, and it doesn’t have a big cloud of smoke.”
She added that she’s asked a lot of customers, “‘What’s so special about Juul?’ Many say it works as far as getting a good nicotine fix.
“We get swarms of Gonzaga kids; we get a lot of college kids who come in for it,” Katz added. “Also, we see a lot of older clientele who work in businesses, and they come in and ask for the device.”
The Juul pods of nicotine liquid include flavors such as mint, the most popular one sold, Katz said, followed by cucumber and mango. Other pods come in fruit medley, creme brulee, classic menthol, classic tobacco and Virginia tobacco.
Regionally, officials at Spokane Public Schools said that while they’re seeing a slight rise in vaping generally at high schools, only one facility has reported a confiscated Juul.
“All administrators are aware of them,” said Kevin Morrison, district spokesman.
Bryan Kelly, assistant principal at Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene, said in an email about Juul that, “Yes, we have seen a huge rise in this issue. It is troublesome because they are so small and look like a USB drive.
“They are actually charged by putting them in a USB port. We have confiscated several of them and are definitely seeing an increase of this behavior.”
Other Coeur d’Alene school administrators said they’ve seen some Juul activity, said district spokesman Scott Maben, and one middle school principal told him that administrators are dealing with the issue on a weekly basis, he said.
Central Valley High School reported administrators have confiscated “many e-cigarettes,” but only one Juul, and no Juuls have been detected so far at University High School, said district spokeswoman Marla Nunberg.
Some metro areas such as Chicago and New York have reported an increase in students caught vaping on campuses, and that some teens post on social media about their Juul use under the hashtag, #doit4juul.
On March 6, Spokane Regional Health District posted an alert geared to school officials and the community about youth vaping trends. In that alert, the agency specifically addressed the Juul device, citing that it already has the highest market share in the vaping industry.
The Juul also packs a higher concentration of nicotine than other vaping products, said Jared O’Connor, health educator based in Spokane for the Washington Poison Center. Poison center officials have had three Juul-related calls statewide in 2018, including one report that a person ingested the liquid nicotine from a leaked pod, resulting in seizures, O’Connor said.
“The Juul device is unique; it has the nicotine in a salt-based liquid,” O’Connor said. “It has 50 milligrams of nicotine in 0.7 milliliters of liquid.”
He said among other vaping devices, the highest level is typically 36 milligrams of nicotine per 1 milliliter of liquid, adding, “that’s high, and it goes down from there.”
Health officials say other e-cigarette brands are sold today in designs resembling pens or with slim cases. Multiple nicotine pod flavors are available among different vaping products.
Another newer device, the Pax brand’s Era, is designed similarly with discretion in mind, making it easy to hide in a pocket or handbag, said A.J. Sanders, healthy communities specialist at SRHD.
On the Gonzaga campus, a few students said they’ve heard of Juul, including Chloe Sciammas, 19, but she doesn’t own it and wouldn’t use one. She doesn’t understand why a handful of friends do.
“Out of my friends, not a lot of them have one; I’d say a small percentage do,” Sciammas said. “It would be like 15 percent. I have no idea why. I ask them, and they don’t really answer.
“I’ve seen them. They look like a thin, black rectangle.”
Casey Harper, a company spokesman for Juul Labs, said in an email that the company’s mission is to eliminate cigarette smoking by offering existing adult smokers an alternative to cigarettes.
“JUUL is not intended for anyone else,” the spokesman said. “We strongly condemn the use of our product by minors, and it is in fact illegal to sell our product to minors.”
“Our goal is to further reduce the number of minors who possess or use tobacco products, including vapor products, and to find ways to keep young people from ever trying these products.”
The company’s initiatives include making sure its e-commerce platform incorporates controls to ensure minors aren’t able to purchase online, working to collaborate on educational programs, and deploying a secret shopper program to monitor age verification in retail stores.
Harper said the company welcomes comments from parents and educators through email at email@example.com.
A handful of Spokane-area stores are listed on Juul’s website as selling the product. Store workers check ID of buyers to ensure they it doesn’t sell vaping or tobacco products to anyone under age 18, Katz said.
Nicotine is highly addictive, and the alert by Spokane Regional Health District said the use of vaping or smoking products among youth increases the likelihood of lifelong nicotine addiction and risk of transitioning to combustible cigarettes.
According to a statewide Healthy Youth Survey in 2016, 17 percent of Spokane County 10th-graders had reported vaping within the previous 30 days. Some people also use cannabis oil in vaping products, Sanders said.
Younger people don’t seem aware of the risks, Sanders said.
“We do know that harmful chemicals found in cigarettes are also found both in the e-liquids as well as in the vapor that it emits,” she said. “We know that using a vaping device, including Juul, is not safe.
“We also know that nicotine is very harmful on a developing brain.”
Yet health officials are seeing a slight increase in vaping use among youth in the region.
“Yes, according to the (2016) Healthy Youth Survey, youth are vaping at about twice the rate that they are using tobacco,” Sanders said. “The youths’ perceived risk of harm is very low when it comes to vaping devices. They think they’re safe or safer.”
In Spokane, however, the district isn’t hearing reports that Juul is gaining widespread popularity among youth, said SRHD’s spokeswoman Kim Papich.
“The vast majority of students are not vaping, so this is a smaller minority of students,” Papich said. “One thing we talk about is encouraging adults to have conversations as a positive intervention strategy.”
As another precaution, the health district said it’s warning about emails going to school districts about a vaping prevention curriculum. The emails falsely claim the curriculum draws on resources of SRHD best practices, under the title of Juul Prevention, Intervention & Replacement Initiatives, said Sanders.
The regional health district hasn’t authorized it, she said, and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids advises schools not to use the curriculum.
This story was updated March 14 to include comments from a Juul company spokesman.