In 2016, I had never heard of vaping. When an unexpected package addressed to my 16-year-old son arrived on my porch, I opened it. I had no idea what to make of the device inside the box, so I asked my son about it when he arrived home from school.
“It’s just something I ordered online. Can I have it, please?” he answered nonchalantly. After a lot of questioning and a little confrontation, he admitted it was a product used to inhale special fruit-flavored juice. He assured me it was safe. But as I researched, I learned that vapes were illegal for anyone under 18, so I refused to give him the device.
He was livid and demanded it back. He had deemed it to be “safe” since he only used juice without nicotine so he wouldn’t get addicted. As a way of demonstrating his honesty, he admitted he liked the fruity flavors, but the real reason he vaped was to bond with his friends while they were posting vape tricks, like making rings of smoke, on social media. In a last-ditch effort to convince me, he insisted he would keep using his friends’ vapes even if I kept his.
None of this swayed me. I decided to hold the device until he was 18—the legal age he was supposed to be to own one. My research had turned up chemicals in the juice I knew nothing about—and neither did he or lots of people.
Now, despite their wild popularity among teens like my son, the future of vape companies is in the hands of a U.S. district court. In October, the mother of an 18-year-old boy filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Juul, alleging her son died because of his three-year addiction to vaping. I usually believe that lawsuits are a last resort. But as a parent of two teenagers who both vape—despite my strenuous objections—it’s become clear that lawmakers and the courts need to step up and address the causes and impacts of the youth vaping epidemic.
My son’s father and I have long been disgusted by tobacco companies, which pretended for decades that cigarettes didn’t harm people. We were angry our son could get sucked in by a product that might turn out to do the same thing. After reminding him that his grandfather had recently been put on oxygen because of a decades-long smoking habit, I told my son that similar health impacts could someday be connected to the chemicals in vape juice. After begging for me to reconsider and searching my room for his device and not finding it, he realized I was not going to relent.
I thought he’d forget about it, but I was wrong. Ultimately, this same scenario played out in my house five more times. My son continued to use our home address for the delivery of more vapes, all of which I confiscated. It was shockingly easy for a 16-year-old with his own bank account and debit card to order these devices online, even though this was illegal. Vape companies didn’t seem to do anything to verify age that couldn’t be bypassed with a simple fudging of one’s birth date.
Each time my son begged me to reconsider with the same arguments, until he dropped a twist I didn’t expect. He said his friends all had Juuls, which he claimed would only accept Juul pods—all of which contain nicotine.
Panicked that he might get addicted, I considered giving my son a vape that would allow him to use nicotine-free juice. But first, I wanted to determine if his claims about Juul were true. That’s when I really learned about Juul’s dirty tactics, such as a design that seems intended to fool parents and teachers into thinking a vape is an innocuous thumb drive, and its lack of nicotine-free options. That’s the first time I really believed that something sinister was going on with Juul. Why would a company make a product with flavors that were clearly targeting teenagers and not offer nonnicotine options, as other companies did?
Even worse was the fact that Juul had become the most popular vape among teens. While I was unaware, companies like Juul were having their own discussions with my teenage son about vaping, aggressively marketing to teens right in the place where they hang out: social media. Since it launched in 2015, Juul has been engaged in an all-out assault on the habits of my son’s entire generation. Shocking statistics were coming out that a high percentage of high schoolers were vaping. In 2018, high school vaping jumped as much as 80 percent annually.
But there was more bad news to come. While my son was in his first year of college, I started reading about the mysterious lung illnesses and the deaths, linked only by victims’ vaping habits. I realized my initial instinct had been right: We don’t know enough about these chemicals and their impact on health, especially given that it is so much easier to consume vape juice in larger quantities than cigarettes. The disease’s spread is truly scary, and as we dropped my son off for his sophomore year of college, he told us many of his friends were trying to quit. He said his peers didn’t want to vape as much anymore. College students were taking the news of the lung illnesses seriously. But quitting nicotine is no easy task, as many life-long smokers can tell you.
I wish I could say that my son quit, and that my vaping story ends here. But the lure of billions of dollars has turned these vape companies into leeches, using social media advertising to impact the health of a generation.
I believe my son continues to vape, though I hope not every day. And unfortunately, I found a vape in my daughter’s room this year. She is now 16 years old. She admitted she vapes and got angry with me when I took her device. At first she told me, just as my son did three years ago, that she would use her friends’ vapes because I took hers. More recently, she admitted that she has purchased her own disposable vapes that are “easy” for teens to buy at certain gas stations that don’t ID. She didn’t even discuss trying to avoid nicotine in the juice. She also said doing tricks with the smoke, and posting those tricks on social media, is one of the big draws.
I am an advocate of letting adults decide for themselves whether or not to use a dangerous product, but I understand the rationale of lawmakers outlawing these devices in some states. It’s become an epidemic among teenagers, and it is potentially fatal. There is not enough research about the possible damage caused by the chemicals in these products, so I believe it is time to hit the pause button on their sale.
My position is frustrating to a former smoker I know who insists vapes were invented as a smoking cessation tool. He said he tried everything to quit cigarettes—the patch, gum, pills—and nothing worked until vapes came along. He said he spent years “hacking up a lung” every morning but couldn’t kick his smoking habit. Since he started vaping, he said he no longer smokes cigarettes and no longer has a coughing fit every morning. I’m happy for him and many other smokers who may have improved their health by using vapes to get off cigarettes.
But they got hooked on cigarettes to begin with because the tobacco companies marketed to them when they were young and got them addicted to nicotine before they were mature enough to make a decision based on long-term risks rather than short-term pleasure. That’s exactly what the vape companies are doing now, all in the name of profit.
Regulating the free-market economy should be done with caution and good reason. But when those in power examine the balance between giving consumers the freedom to choose what they want to buy and children’s lives, there should be no question that our kids should win every time.
Diane Moca/Fast Company