Disegno #25

Asks For a Hit of Your Juul

San Francisco

22 May 2020

I started smoking at 15, which, retrospectively, was probably one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. But I can’t be blamed for a decision that so many make under the power of peer pressure – anything that is taboo, and gives the slight promise of status and social capital, is catnip to teenagers. Although I do, perhaps, blame an older girl called Kate, who I thought was too cool to turn down a Mayfair Superking from.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), smoking-related diseases kill up to 8 million people a year. Clearly, then, we’re in need of tools to help pull ourselves away from cigarettes, which is why the last decade has seen a boom in devices designed to wean us off tobacco. Between 2011 and 2018, the number of vape users worldwide has risen from 7 million to 41 million. Emerging in a triumphant puff of sickly-sweet mango-ice-cherryade vapour, the global e-cigarette market is now estimated to be worth £15.5bn.

My first e-cigarette was the Vype, a design that was manufactured in 2013 by CN Creative, a division of British American Tobacco. The Vype masqueraded unconvincingly as a cigarette, with a dim electronic amber glow throbbing on its tip with each puff. It was unbearably uncool and I stopped using it as soon as someone pointed out how ridiculous I looked, which was almost certainly the first time I dared bring it to the pub. Other options at the time included Smok’s huge, lumbering machines with chimney-level vapour plumes, or Kandypens’s far more petite pen models, designed to appeal to women who supposedly didn’t fancy carrying anything so hyper-masculine. American model and actor Amber Rose brought out her own champagne-leather and gold-trimmed edition for Kandypens in 2018: “I want it to feel like a celebration when they inhale.” None of these felt right for me.

Enter Juul, a vaping device first launched in June 2015. Created by Pax Labs co-founders Adam Bowen and James Monsees, this small, sleek, seamless device was the furthest deviation possible from the blunt industrial aesthetic of previous e-cigarettes. Everything needed to activate Juul’s proprietary, single-use e-liquid pods is contained within its brushed-metal case. No need to play with voltage, coils, or ratios of nicotine to glycerine liquid – Juul just works. Aesthetically, it mimics the type of product we’ve learned to covet, with journalist Ben Radding calling it the “iPhone of e-cigs” in 2017. It looks good. Full disclosure: I am a Juul user and it terrifies me just how smitten I was initially by the design.

From the moment it went to market in 2015, with a mission to “improve the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers”, Juul has seen its sales rocket, despite the considerable cost of using it. As of October 2019, you’ll have to pay Juul £10.99 for 2.7ml of e-liquid (compared to approximately £4-6 for 10ml from other, refillable brands). Total sales are projected to reach $3bn in 2019, almost triple those of 2018. Founders Monsees and Bowen are currently worth $1.1bn each and the company controls close to 75 per cent of the US e-cigarette market. “Within our small subset [of the industry], we are the pinnacle,” summarised Monsees in a 2018 interview with The Mercury News.

With this dominance has come criticism. Juul has been blamed for fuelling the rising “youth vaping epidemic”, where teenagers who may never have touched a cigarette have suddenly become heavily addicted to nicotine. A study published in October 2018 by researchers at the Schroeder Institute in Washington revealed that 9.5 per cent of teenagers and 11 per cent of young adults use Juul, and that teenagers aged 15-17 are 16 times more likely to be Juul users than 25-34-year-olds. In September 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced enforcement action against retailers and other companies that continued to target youngsters in this way.

Part of Juul’s appeal to younger users seems to be its design. Pre-2015, no one had played up the product design of an e-cigarette in the way that Juul has, with its predecessors prioritising the device’s function as a nicotine dispenser in determining what it should look like. Within the first year of production, Juul won a number of design awards, including the IF Design Award, San Francisco Design Award and the IDA Design Award gold medal for product design. It didn’t garner these accolades on aesthetics alone, either. Managing to squash the “e” part of the design into its 15mm by 95mm case is impressive. A curious friend of mine took hers apart to confirm that, yes, it contains a tiny microphone pressure sensor that detects when you take a puff and lights up to let you know the remaining charge of its lithium battery. There’s even a secret “party mode” that makes the front-facing light emit a rainbow if you shake your Juul hard enough – or, in my experience, if your Juul pod leaks.

One of Juul’s overarching design features is its unapologetic inaccessibility, a volte-face for the community of vaping enthusiasts who have long compared handmade coils and custom builds.1 Maybe the Juul is cool because of current attitudes towards modded (customised) devices. In spite of the vogueishness of hacking culture and open-source, many would still choose the MacBook over a hand-built, high-graphics Linux set-up, regardless of the trade-off in performance or ability to fix it without an excruciating visit to a Genius bar. In his 2018 essay ‘A fundamental critique of seamless design’, designer Gauthier Roussilhe notes that “any friction is considered negative in essence” in product design. “We must not confront the user with a troubling, strange or even complex situation.” The downside of this seamlessness is that potentially everything – from pods to chargers, cables and batteries – becomes proprietary, making users dependant on the complete system.

Regardless of the root of its appeal to younger audiences, Juul has become a lifestyle and the subject of a multitude of memes, from “asks for a hit of your juul, takes 12” to the more macabre “when you pull out the plug on your dying grandpa to charge your juul”. In the weirder corners of the internet, videos such as ‘ASMR SEXPERIENCE WITH JUUL (V DANK)’ have garnered 1.2m views. Here, YouTuber Trevor Wallace rigs a microphone to the tip of his Juul to make sure you don’t miss a single crackle (the latest iteration of Juul pods have been fitted with an improved, longer, “wick” that guarantees a crackle almost every time). At one point, Wallace apologises for his cough interrupting the experience, a result, he says, of the nearby California wildfires. Another ASMR video, by YouTuber Cloveress, simulates being caught with a Juul in the bathroom at high school. At the time of writing, it has had 1.3m views. The /r/juul subreddit is a trove of opinions, memes, personalised Juuls with printed skins and diamond-etching. It also contains advice for anything from broken devices to running checks on fake pods that suddenly appear in gas stations or online. Most recently, redditors have been sharing their final, desperate hauls of flavoured Juul pods – a spate of panic-buying prompted by Donald Trump’s call to ban flavoured nicotine-infused e-liquids following the deaths of six young people from knock-off THC (the principle psychoactive chemical present in marijuana).

At first glance, it seems odd that Juul has reached so many young people, so quickly. Legislative controls on its use are, on the face of it, robust. To buy pods online in the US, users have to give websites their social security number in order to create an account; in the UK, it’s age verification via credit check and showing a photo ID when signing for your parcel. However, there are obvious flaws in these plans. If teenagers want to get hold of Juul pods, they can just ask older friends to buy them (as with cigarettes in the past), and many vape shops and rip-off manufacturers will happily take anyone’s money. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has argued that unregulated websites have allowed shady cartridges and black-market liquids to be sold by anyone: “At this time, we do not believe consumers can tell what’s in the product, and there is not sufficient enough information on labels to know anyway.”

In July 2019, a House of Representatives panel in the US revealed that Juul had directly targeted teenagers as potential customers as early as 2015. Alongside Juul’s brightly coloured, youth-focused advertising campaigns, Forbes found that the company’s internal communications revealed Juul had employed PR strategies to recruit social-media influencers with at least 30,000 followers to “establish a network of creatives to leverage as loyalists”. This drive was aimed primarily at 25-34-year-olds, who were, in turn, followed by younger users who idolised them. As Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, testified: “There’s nothing more powerful than a young person marketing to young people.” The campaign was strategic and effective. Influencers such as Christina Zayas were paid $1,000 for an Instagram and blog post, while exclusive launch parties (complete with giveaways) invited the most visible influencers to “experience the brand”. Combined with sweet flavours and a marked increase in social activity, Juul became a viral sensation.

At the House of Representatives hearing, California rep. Mark DeSaulnier reserved special condemnation for Monsees: “You, Sir, are an example to me of the worst of the Bay Area. You don’t ask for permission; you ask for forgiveness. You’re nothing but a marketer of a poison and your target is young people.” In response, in a move sitting uneasily somewhere between innovation and attempted redemption, Juul created the C1.

The C1 is a connected device packed full of features that seem hell-bent on answering the concerns of the FDA, parents and vapers alike. In short, it tries to solve an almost entirely sociocultural problem through technology. Currently only available on Android, the C1 is lockable by the registered user should it fall into the wrong (younger) hands or wander out of range of the smartphone it is paired with. It can be located by its last-known location, should a young person decide to take it for a joyride. Limits can be placed on the amount of puffs a (legal) user can take per day, to reassure the outside world that Juul is very serious about nicotine addiction. Finally, each device is individually trackable from manufacturing plant to store. In an act of necessary friction, users must undergo rigorous security checks before making use of all the C1’s new app-based features. In the US, you’ll need to send Juul images of both the front and back of your social security ID (which are compared against a third-party database) and a selfie to unlock your account. This creates a user database that directly pinpoints each device – should a store sell a Juul to a minor, the manufacturer will technically know exactly where and when it happened. It’s even been suggested by Juul that future versions will use geofencing to stop the device working in locations where it could be used by young people, such as schools.

There’s a problem, however. You don’t need the C1’s app to use, charge, or refill the device, so Juul’s efforts seem largely pointless. As it stands, all of Juul’s next-level verification hurdles only come into play if you want to enable the C1’s addon, in-app features. If you just want to vape, there’s nothing stopping you. There’s also the matter of data. The C1 will generate a hell of a lot of useful information that is potentially being fed back into market research, regardless of Juul’s claims that users cannot be identified.

Viewed cynically, the C1 is a big song and dance by Juul to prove that it is doing something – anything – to undo a situation that it has almost single-handedly orchestrated. At the time of writing, Juul devices are still not FDA approved.

1 See reddit.com/r/coilporn. No, really.