Understanding Gen Z is the key to solving the Juuling epidemic

Illustration courtesy of Sofia Buchler / The Occidental

If you walk into any high school today, you’ll see that nicotine has made a dangerous comeback in the form of the Juul. A Juul — a small, black vape that looks like a flash drive — can easily be hidden in young people’s pockets and hands. Adolescents everywhere are consumed in a flavored haze of e-cigarette smoke.

Juuling is a popular trend among middle schoolers and high schoolers. The Juul, which was initially created to help smokers quit smoking cigarettes, is now attracting minors to start vaping nicotine. Juul pods (the disposable plastic mouthpieces that contain the Juul’s vape juice) come in kid-friendly flavors such as mint, mango and creme. Minors also glorify the product on social media. According to the Juul website, Juul pods come in three or five percent concentrations of nicotine. To put that in perspective, a five percent nicotine pod is equivalent to one pack of cigarettes.

According to the New York Times, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is cracking down on Juuling by investigating Juul vendors’ potential marketing towards youth. Since Sept.12, Juul has 60 days to prove to the FDA that they can keep their e-cigs away from children, as the FDA is accusing the company of targeting young people. The minimum age for buying e-cigarettes ranges from 18 to 21 depending on the state. The FDA is also conducting a sting operation, sending minors into stores to attempt to illegally buy Juuls. They sent warning letters to over 1,300 retailers that were caught selling to minors, and have demanded that Juul labs give them company documents about the research and marketing of their products.

It’s important to consider who is using Juuls: Generation Z (people born after 1996, which includes myself and most of us at Oxy). The answer to the Juuling epidemic is not to ban or criminalize Juuls, but rather to focus on mass education efforts that address it as a result of Gen Z’s anxious tendencies and mental health issues. And we have plenty: according to The Guardian, 17 percent of Gen Z has been suicidal at some point in their life, 79 percent worry about getting a job and 80 percent crave more face-to-face interaction with others. Our generation grew up alongside the rise of social media, which has been proven to enforce negative self-esteem. Gen Z also has an attention span of about eight seconds, and 79 percent of us exhibit signs of distress when kept away from personal devices. The growth of technology has driven both technological and Juul addictions; our generation is addicted to stimulation, and nicotine is the stimulant we are turning to.

If we take the initiative to understand Juul users’ psychology, we can effectively address what drives them to turn to nicotine. According to the Foundations Recovery Network, mental illness leads to an increase in substance abuse, and “people who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some point in their lives” are responsible for consuming 68 percent of all cigarettes. Juuls, of course, contain the same active ingredient: nicotine, which offers a temporary buzz that artificially calms anxiety. The Juul also appeals to our short attention spans by providing instant gratification. Unlike cigarettes, young people can Juul quickly and inconspicuously without needing to step outside.

While we don’t know the long-term effects of vaping due to its short time on the market, we do know that nicotine is addictive and difficult to quit. Other health risks of nicotine addiction include lung cancer, heart disease and respiratory complications. However, it is important that we provide adolescents with access to information about the health risks of nicotine without preaching abstinence. Anti-drug campaigns that preach abstinence, such as “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) have proved ineffective. In fact, abstinence-only education can even increase adolescents’ susceptibility to future smoking.

We should teach our youth to be critical consumers so they can effectively make their own choices when they reach the smoking age. For inspiration, we can look to campaigns that have previously been successful. “Above the Influence,” for example, was a successful government campaign that focused on substance abuse at the community level by encouraging teens to be independent and self-sufficient. This is the type of social campaigning that will empower Juul users to make their own informed choices.

Further, we need to address mental health issues by addressing the whole person and not just the condition of their drug addiction. This includes but is not limited to providing mental health services to young people in schools, creating safe spaces for discussion and working to address the deep-rooted societal and mental health issues that are driving people to Juul.

Maddie Solomon is an undeclared first year. She can be reached at solomonm@oxy.edu.