By now you’ve probably heard of the Juul, the vape that looks like something between a USB drive and a pack of Doublemint gum. It’s used with pods that are filled with an e-liquid, which delivers the highest possible concentration of nicotine outside of a cigarette. It’s flat, sleek, about the size of the average lady’s middle finger, and designed, specifically, to not look like a cigarette so as to help its intended customer with their No. 1 goal: quitting smoking.
But something different happened: the same teens who’d been taught their whole lives that cigarettes were truly disgusting started picking up the Juul. Specifically, New York teens enjoyed the nicotine headrush without the cancer-causing smoke and chemicals. As of the last week in February, Juul was responsible for 54 percent of vape sales in the United States, and now these New York City teens would like their due: the Juul wasn’t cool or really all that worthy of attention until they picked it up.
By the time the Juul epidemic was covered in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and emails from school principals, teens had been ripping Juuls for two full years. Bathrooms from Columbia Grammar to Riverdale Country Day have since been christened “Juul rooms.” This vape even has fan accounts on Instagram. The teens have made a sleek stick of vaporized nicotine the coolest, most coveted accessory. A high-school status object.
Now that Juuls are everywhere, by the laws of nature and science, that means they are also no longer cool. Here, New York teens (using pseudonyms because college admissions are at stake) scoff at the Juul hype, explain that they were the ones who made it a thing in the first place, and that they are already over it.
It began two years ago.
Zoe: “This was two years ago, summer 2016. I was a freshman and there was this really cool junior I did debate with. We were going to a tournament upstate and she had something plugged into her computer and I thought, That’s so weird, I’ve never seen a USB used in this day and age. Then she started using it and I was like, Oh, I’m dumb as hell. I thought it was cool and I asked her about it. Then I got one and started seeing it everywhere.”
John: “You’d go into a bathroom and everyone would be ripping them. A few months ago people would do it in the library too. If you rip it and hold it in, you can’t see it, smell it, nothing. It’s pretty funny. Now it’s less, though, because the school found out, so people do it in their cars.”
Zoe: “That year it had a certain cachet and I felt cool that I had one. And then in the middle of tenth grade, it changed. It wasn’t not cool but it was just another thing in my life that I was using and I didn’t think of the connotation anymore. None of us smoked before we Juuled. At some point we all started it ’cause we thought it was cool and then we kept using it ’cause we got addicted.”
John: “It’s a stigma these days that kids don’t want to be associated with cigarettes. Most of the kids who started actually used it instead of cigarettes. That was me. If I was at a party and I didn’t want to smoke I would rip the Juul outside. A few people started with it and then other kids saw it at parties and then it became cool. It’s popular because you can hide it and shit.”
Lisa: “My friend’s dad was a huge smoker who got a Juul to stop. Everyone thinks he’s the man because she posts pictures of him with the Juul.”
City kids were first.
Lisa: “All the city people sort of pride themselves that it’s a city thing. I went to the Mountain School for a semester where there were kids from all over country and barely any of them had heard of it. Stores in a bunch of places didn’t sell it. It was definitely big in New York City before anywhere else.”
John: “I think it blew up here first. I went to California a few months ago and I brought my Juul. I needed some pods, but I couldn’t find them anywhere. Anywhere. No one was using other vapes. You got made fun of if you were using a Boxmod [Ed. note: this is the clunky almost hookah-like vape favored by Ben Affleck and Leonardo DiCaprio]. It’s kind of weird how Juul made it cool.”
Gabby: “The company started here in New York and were then bought by Pax. So it first started here before catching on in other big cities.”
Zoe: “Based on my personal experience it was with city kids before people from other states knew about it or it became popular. I had a friend from Florida who saw it and I had to explain to her what it was.”
There are status flavors.
Lisa: “Last year, when I was in tenth grade, mint Juul pods, which is the favorite flavor, weren’t available. Juul stopped distributing them. It was the most insane craze I’ve ever seen. People who somehow got them were selling one pod for like $20. It was ridiculous, it was insane. People think it’s so exciting when they come out with new flavors and colors. There’s mango now. They came out with a blue Juul a couple months ago and everyone got so excited.
John: “There’s not really a coolest flavor. Just not crème brûlée. No one’s into that. If you’re not using that you’re cool.”
Lisa: “There was a Facebook group for a basketball game between Collegiate and Columbia Grammar. Collegiate kids kept posting Columbia Grammar kids like crème brûlée pods and Columbia Grammar kids cough when they hit the Juul.”
Zoe: “Usually things that were fads would’ve phased out already. I do think it’s notable that it’s been around for longer than things that are a fad normally are. And a reason is that is does cause nicotine addictions and the people using them are addicted to nicotine, so that’s going keep them around.”
John: “Honestly, I’m trying to quit and I know a lot of kids who are quitting. Especially the kids who weren’t into it and just bought it to be cool. Any addiction isn’t good. People are using it all the time, most of them weren’t smoking before, which is the funny thing. Most kids these days use it because they saw their friends using it.”
And now they’re over it.
Lisa: “A couple years ago it was, like, cool to have a Juul, for sure. Now, not as much. It’s just so normal. Since it’s become a thing there are definitely a lot of people that are like, ‘Oh, you Juul, that’s so wack.’ There are people that are so against it, which is interesting.”
Gabby: “In the ’70s kids smoked cigarettes like it was nothing and you could smoke in restaurants and everywhere. Our generation found out how to reproduce that in a socially acceptable way. I think it’s stupid and I wish I never bought into it, but I did and it’s a pastime now.”
Zoe: “Now there are three camps: you use Juul and like it. You formerly used a Juul and realized it probably wasn’t great. Or you don’t get the hype around it. This February there was a whole hoax sent around of screenshots of messages that someone got cancer and died from the Juul. I knew it probably wasn’t true, but I freaked out because I go through a pod a day, so I thought it was going to happen to me. I texted my friend and I was like, I’m going to get cancer. So I threw out my Juul mid-January and it became so clear to me in that moment how uncool it was. Now I think everyone who does it is so dumb but there were two years that I thought it was so cool. I look at someone with a Juul and remember how carefree I was.”
John: “I’ve seen videos of people ripping like three at a time, but that’s stupid. There are fan accounts; I can’t believe people do that. Get a better hobby.”
Zoe: “Looking back, I never thought I was addicted to nicotine because that sounds so severe, but there will be times even now when I’m like, Mmm, I really wish I could Juul right now. A lot of people in the city go through a pod a day or a pod every two days; that signals you have an addiction, but people don’t look at it like that because it looks so cool and it’s discreet. People are like, ‘It’s better than a cigarette so it’s not that bad.’”
These interviews have been condensed and edited.