When Brennan McDermott was an underclassman at Simsbury High in Connecticut, he found himself in a timeless situation, familiar to watchers of horny 1980s comedies and after-school specials alike. “A couple of my buddies were like, ‘Hey, let’s go to the bathroom,’” said Mr. McDermott, now Simsbury’s senior class president. “I was like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?!’ I got kind of uncomfortable with it. They were all passing it around. I didn’t take it.”
In a modern twist from coming-of-age canon, though, “it” wasn’t a cigarette — it was a small, rectangular vape product known as the Juul.
In the public imagination, vaping — with its oversize, multipart manipulatable products — has become associated with a techier, dweebier slice of the population. But as early as 2015, e-cigarette use by high-school and middle-school students had eclipsed cigarette use.
And by late 2017, an informal consensus had burbled up from students, teachers, parents and the internet: All across the country teenagers who in generations past would have become cigarette smokers — or, perhaps, would have never taken up smoking — were falling in love with the Juul.
“Cigarettes, they’re not even a factor anymore,” Mr. McDermott said. “Nobody smokes cigarettes. You go to the bathroom, there’s a zero percent chance that anyone’s smoking a cigarette and there’s a 50-50 chance that there’s five guys Juuling. And it’s like, how Band-Aid has become synonymous with ‘bandage’? Juul has become synonymous with ‘vape.’”
Created by two former Stanford University design students, the Juul attempts to mimic the nicotine hit of a real cigarette, and sells for $49.99. Over Christmas, Nielsen reported Juul had achieved a 46.8 percent market share — exceeding the top market share achieved by Marlboro cigarettes at the peak of that product’s measured success. Then, last month, Nielsen said Juul had 54 percent of the market.
I, an adult, first noticed the Juul on the various Instagram feeds of the unapologetically dumb Barstool Sports. In recent months, they’ve been flooded with college kids finding creative ways to display their prowess with, or devotion to, their Juuls: kids hitting their Juuls at their parents’ dining room table over fall break; kids hitting their Juuls in the hospital after a bloody drunken escapade. It was all a bit bewildering.
It took oodles of efficient pop-culture manipulation for America to accept cigarettes as the ultimate symbol of rebellious cool. But now, all of a sudden, a vape is cool?
Sebastian and Gio, students at a continuation high school in Northern California, both Juul. “I’m on probation so I can’t smoke marijuana,” Gio said, by way of explanation. (The students asked that their last names not be used, for fear of disciplinary infractions.) “And I don’t want to smoke cigarettes. Cigarettes taste nasty.”
Sebastian said: “I like the feeling of it. The lightheadedness. It makes me feel sober and high at the same time. Plus it looks sleek — you smoke it, you look kind of bougie.” Both are also fans of Juul’s flavored tobacco pods. In particular, Gio said: “Mango! That Mango go hard.” (Other flavor options include Cool Mint, Fruit Medley and Creme Brulee.)
As for discretion, Gio said, “It looks like a USB drive. It doesn’t look suspicious.”
Chidum Okeke, 18, of Louisville, Ky., said, “In my opinion it looks like the coolest thing ever. Almost futuristic.”
Mr. Okeke doesn’t Juul, but he has gone a bit viral tweeting about it.
He traces the inflection point to early 2017. That is when the “Juul wave,” as some have called it, started to go from the popular-kid set in his grade to entire neighboring schools. “It’s so small, so easy to hide in the palm of your hand,” he said. “And they’re rechargeable! I’ve lost track of the number of people I have found charging their Juuls in class through their laptops. It’s almost comical.”
Mr. Okeke said he also knows kids who have named their Juuls; names he has heard include “Juulia” and “Richard.”
In February, Greta Frontero, an 18-year-old senior at Westfield High in New Jersey, wrote an article for her school paper about the Juul. It is a true gem of reportage: “A senior male was caught Juuling during class when his chemistry teacher’s back was turned. ‘I took a hit of it and blew it in my sweatshirt, but the smoke came out the back of my jacket,’ he said. ‘When my teacher asked why there was smoke coming out of my jacket and I opened my mouth to respond, more smoke came out of my mouth.’”
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