ELLSWORTH — The Juul Starter Kit — available from most tobacco retailers for $49.99 — comes with a vaporizer, a USB charger and four flavored nicotine cartridges, or pods.
It’s got the sleek, simplistic packaging reminiscent of Apple products. The smooth edges and metallic coloring give it a thoroughly modern feel.
It doesn’t seem coincidental, then, that Juul has come to dominate the electronic cigarette market. With vaping on the rise in Hancock County schools, it’s something teachers and parents are increasingly concerned about.
“I would say it’s certainly an issue in every school today,” said Josh Tripp, principal at Bucksport High School. “In the last calendar year is when we started to see it really become more prevalent.”
That’s true of schools across Hancock County. Last week, both Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan and George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill notified parents of concerns over the increasing popularity of electronic cigarettes among students.
“The increasing popularity came to our attention at George Stevens Academy early in the fall semester,” said GSA Head of School Tim Seeley in a statement to The Ellsworth American. “By our informal estimates, perhaps 20-25 percent of our students are involved with vaping, and we believe that a higher number are Juuling when not on campus.”
Juul in particular has exploded in popularity. Ubiquitous enough that it’s now both a noun and a verb, Juul was first introduced in 2015 by San Francisco-based PAX Labs.
Spun off as its own company last year, Juul Labs is now valued at over $16 billion and as of September represents a 72 percent share of the rapidly growing electronic cigarette market.
The first patent for an electronic cigarette came in 2003. The concept was to remove the most dangerous element of smoking — carcinogens generated by burning tar and other substances in the tobacco.
An electronic cigarette vaporizes liquid nicotine, which is the substance that raises dopamine levels in the brain and gives tobacco its stimulating, pleasurable effect. This is why Juul and other electronic-cigarettes are advertised as healthier alternatives to smoking.
Juul’s website promotes the product as “founded with the goal of improving the lives of the world’s 1 billion adult smokers by providing them with an easy to use vapor alternative to combustible cigarettes, containing a similar level of nicotine to make switching as easy as possible.”
The worry is that Juul has created a product that might convert smokers to vaping but also be just as successful at converting non-users to the same behavior.
While Juul and other electronic cigarettes grow in popularity, health officials and government regulators have taken a more dubious attitude toward claims that these products are marketed just for adults.
In September, the Food and Drug Administration conducted a surprise inspection of the Juul offices in late September and seized thousands of documents, mostly related to marketing practices.
Altria, a large tobacco company that sells two types of electronic cigarettes, announced last week that it would stop selling products in flavors other than tobacco, mint or menthol.
Because the phenomenon is fairly recent, there isn’t as much data on the health risks of excessive vaping. Some chemicals used in the poorly regulated vaping liquid manufacturing process can still have carcinogenic properties when heated and also have been linked to “popcorn lung,” which causes scarring and obstruction of small passageways in the lung.
Nicotine itself has many addictive properties, especially on younger brains, which is where the concern that marketing different flavors ranging from the exotic — such as crab legs or nacho cheese for those with a stronger palette — to Juul’s sweet mango or crème flavors has a disproportionate influence on teenagers.
“I think the appeal is definitely the design and the flavors,” said Tara Young, Drug Free Communities coordinator with Healthy Acadia in Ellsworth. “Each Juul pod is the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes, and with electronic cigarettes it’s so easy to just keep puffing on them. It doesn’t really lend itself to a beginning and end like a cigarette.”
The 2017 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey of 1,919 Hancock County high school students showed that 31 percent of students had tried a vape product at some point. By 12th grade, 40 percent of respondents had done so, and 12.4 percent of students responded that they had used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days. That’s higher than the 9.9 percent who said they had done so with other tobacco products.
“We’ve seen traditional cigarette use among teenagers fall off dramatically over the past 10 years,” Young said. “At the same time, there’s a lack of education and understanding of electronic-cigarettes.”
The discreet nature of electronic cigarettes, Juul especially, makes them easy to conceal and use in school. They’re also fairly easy to get a hold of. With a pre-paid credit card, third-party vendors rarely require an age check more meaningful than asking you to click yes or no if you’re over 21.
Nash and Healthy Acadia work with schools and students to educate them on what an electronic-cigarette contains. They also address the health effects of nicotine — its effects on brain development, the cardiovascular system, dental issues and the simple fact that vaping doesn’t produce a vapor at all, but rather an aerosol.
One of those schools that partners with Healthy Acadia is Sumner Memorial High School.
“We’ve had numerous reports of student usage, and as we’ve investigated we’ve found that many have been substantiated,” said Principal Ty Thurlow, who declined to give provide a specific amount of incidents at Sumner this semester.
Thurlow noted that the small amount of vapor produced, and the lack of a prominent odor in many flavors, made it much more difficult to notice than other tobacco products. He also noted concern that the seemingly cleaner nature of Juul made students less likely to question its ingredients.
“When it’s an odorless or smokeless product — the vapor that’s given off of this product dissipates in a few seconds — the appearance alone makes it seem less harmful,” Thurlow said. “And I think that breeds a lack of awareness.
“They’re aware of harmful products within tobacco. But as far as Juuling, I don’t think they’re as aware of what goes into that.”
Nash at Healthy Acadia noted that according to the 2017 survey, only 23.8 percent of respondents thought that nicotine was in the last vaping product they had tried.
“I think a lot of kids think that it’s not as dangerous as smoking,” Nash said. “But there is a difference between not as dangerous and safe.”