Despite a growing health crisis that has killed more than 50 people, vaping has become an irresistible — and addictive — part of life for many college students.
Gail Moody had her first e-cigarette inhale of the day moments after waking up one recent morning. She took more puffs while showering. Aerosolized nicotine filled her lungs again during a break in her morning run, between mouthfuls of lunch, and as she worked at a tobacco shop near the University of Georgia, where she is a sophomore.
“Wow,” said Ms. Moody, 19, glancing at the sleek black stick in her right hand that evening. “I’m more addicted to this than I thought.”
The University of Georgia banned tobacco use in 2014, and smoking cigarettes is widely frowned upon. But students with e-cigarettes dangling from their lips could be found across campus on a recent visit. They were vaping outside the student union and as they emerged from colonnaded buildings. They vaped while drinking in off-campus bars, the tiny diodes glowing white as they inhaled.
Amid a growing health crisis that has killed more than 50 people and injured more than 2,500, medical experts, school districts and elected officials have pushed for a crackdown on teenage vaping. Facing growing pressure, Congress passed a measure on Thursday to raise the smoking age to 21 for both tobacco and e-cigarettes; President Trump is expected to sign it into law.
But the buzz from vaporized substances — both legal and illicit — can prove irresistible for those living far from home for the first time, despite bans on vaping at more than 2,000 campuses nationwide.
At the University of Georgia, one freshman reveled in the “freedom” to vape, unrestrained by her strict parents. A sophomore gushed about getting free drinks from bartenders in exchange for sharing her e-cigarette. A senior who started vaping last year said e-cigarettes had helped her lose weight, boosting her self-esteem but undermining her efforts to quit.
In interviews with students, some said they began vaping after high school, while others said their habit increased after entering college. They described surreptitiously vaping into their shirts during classes and finding accidentally dropped e-cigarettes on the floors of lecture halls and campus bathrooms.
“People vape all the time,” said Gabriela Miranda, 21, a junior who recently wrote about campus vaping for the student newspaper. “There’s no stigma on campus. It’s such a bubble.”
In a national survey of nearly 1,000 college students conducted earlier this year by Butler University in Indianapolis, more than half said they had used a Juul, the leading e-cigarette brand and prime target of regulators. An annual study by the University of Michigan found that the use of vaping products for nicotine and marijuana had doubled among college students between 2017 and 2018, one of the largest proportional increases since the study of adult drug use began more than 40 years ago.
In the face of mounting lawsuits from states, Juul has halted sales of mint and other flavored pods popular with teenage vapers, but many students said they had simply switched to other brands that offer fruity flavors and discounted vaping devices, some as cheap as 99 cents.
At the same time, the outbreak of lung injuries largely attributed to vaping products containing THC has convinced many students to return to old-school marijuana joints, bongs and pot pipes. One dealer, a student who started selling his own THC oil in January, said he has experienced financial and social fallout as sales have plummeted.
“You try to sell it at a party now, and at least one guy will come up to you and pontificate that you’re killing people,” said the dealer, who declined to be identified to avoid legal trouble.
While denying that his product was harmful, he conceded that he did not really know what the marijuana extract contained. “We buy it off the dark web,” he said. “We have no idea who’s selling it to us.”
One recent evening, The Cloud 9 vape shop near campus was doing a brisk business as students came in to buy cheap disposables and pods in flavors like “iced mango bomb” and “berry lemonade.”
Puffing on a device from behind the counter, Josh Evans, 21, said he was unfazed by the rash of lung injuries. He said he started vaping in college, a habit that replaced an addiction to dipping, which he started while playing baseball in high school.
Still, Mr. Evans, who often vapes from the moment he wakes up until he climbs back into bed at night, admitted that inhaling nicotine vapor sometimes makes him feel unwell. “But then it starts all over the next day,” he said.
Ariel Caudle, 19, a loquacious sophomore, never thought she would become addicted to vaping. She grew up disgusted by her parents’ smoking and thought e-cigarettes were just as gross. But a few weeks into her freshman year, she recounted, a friend proffered her Juul while they were hanging out in the woman’s dorm.
Hit it, her friend said. You know you want to.
Ms. Caudle inhaled and “coughed like a maniac,” she said. Try again, her friend urged, and she drew another breath that hit her throat and flowed into her lungs. This time, the nicotine made her head spin. Her fingers went numb. She felt hyper-focused.
“Wait, I love this, this is incredible, where do I get one,” Ms. Caudle recalled telling her friend. “She said ‘Well, you’re 18. You can get one downtown,’ and we went and got me one right then.”
A month later, the device had become a “social clutch,” she said, an easy way to bond with the many other students who vaped.
At first she would vape in the morning and leave it in her dorm room. But the habit crept up on her until she was vaping every half-hour — in her car, while studying and during class, where she and a friend would compete to find the funniest ways to do it without anyone noticing.
Asked how she clandestinely vaped in public, Ms. Caudle grinned mischievously as she sat in a crowded downtown restaurant. She pulled out her e-cigarette, tugged the sleeve of her Georgia bulldog sweatshirt over her hand, pressed the opening to her mouth and took subtle drags as waiters breezed by, none the wiser.
“Ah, that’s good,” she said after exhaling a wisp of odorless mist.
By last spring, Ms. Caudle felt constantly short of breath from vaping heavily, but she had also built up a tolerance. The headspins were gone, she said, replaced by a craving for the initial buzz and a sense of panic if she couldn’t find the gadget in her room or her car.
“It became ‘Oh my gosh, it’s lost,’” she said, “and then I’m frantically searching my bed and picking up the sheets, hoping it hits the ceiling.”
At the end of her freshman year, Ms. Caudle and her friend counted their collection of empty Juul pods: 352, stockpiled just in case they ran out and needed to tap the last bits of juice.
While home in suburban Atlanta for the summer, she quit for two months rather than spend money on pods, she said, but started again when she returned to Athens and moved into an apartment that sits above a vape shop that sells packs of four pods for $15. Her new roommates also use e-cigarettes.
Still, Ms. Caudle said she is trying to cut back on vaping. She said she has begun leaving her three Juul devices at home when she goes to class, and she refrained from vaping during an internship at a genetics laboratory.
“When I’m studying, a pod goes so fast,” she said, admitting that she had gone through two cartridges — the equivalent to two packs of cigarettes — in two days. “I’ve been hitting it all the time. It’s not even doing anything for me.”
Yet the e-cigarette keeps her anxiety under control, she said, likening the tiny metal device to a child’s security blanket. It is almost always within reach: On her bedside table or under her pillow when she wakes up; between her lips while driving and within eyesight when doing homework.
“I have to see it, otherwise I’ll freak out,” she said.
As a young adult living on her own, Ms. Caudle has more freedom than she has ever had. But she said she also feels like her vaping habit controls her.
“It’s not what it’s doing to your lungs,” she said. “It’s what it’s doing to your head. That’s the most difficult thing to quit.”