This year, cryptic signs for something called Juul began appearing in the windows of the 7-Eleven on my block. On vacation in Miami, where smoking is still allowed in many clubs, I noticed a pretty young woman pull a Juul from her purse and lay it on the bar, next to her cocktail. This summer, I saw Juuls at a Fourth of July crab crack and Juuls on the city bus.
Juul, if you haven’t heard, has quietly become the most popular new way to smoke since the old coffin nail itself, claiming more than half of the booming market for electronic cigarettes.
Where early e-cigs tended to mimic cigarettes — and hilariously generated more smoke than a fog machine — the Juul is as far removed from a cigarette as you can get. A sleek little brick that looks like a USB flash drive, it flickers with colored light, puffs discreetly and smells like nothing at all. It is the iPhone of smoking, and the kids are wild for it.
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But Juuling, health professionals say, also carries the dangers of the death stick of the past. It is raising alarms by hooking youth on nicotine at a time when old-fashioned smoking has been hitting a steep decline.
The secret to Juul’s controversial success may be a twist on the age-old story of smoking as an outlet for teenage rebellion. The popularity of Juul seems to grow in tandem with the uproar: Sales of Juul are up more than 700 percent from a year ago, according to Nielsen data.
Schools across the country say they are confiscating fistfuls of the things from their underage charges. Three lawsuits were recently filed against Juul Labs; each argues that users as young as 14 became addicted to Juul, and that the product was marketed as safe.
To Allan M. Brandt, a historian and author of “The Cigarette Century,” Juul is anything but new and different. “It represents the cultural norms and notions of the cigarette, which was very much youth-oriented,” he said. “It was kind of forbidden; it was extremely cool.” . . .
“I think the history of this tells me, don’t trust these industries,” said Brandt, the smoking historian. “Juul can say, ‘We’re not interested in kids; we’re going to fight the use of this in kids.’ But with flavors like mango, and cool cucumber. . . .”
“Cigarette makers have always said they didn’t want kids to smoke, he continued. But bad news about children lighting up on the schoolyard, he said, “was always great news for the tobacco companies.”
I think back on my own generation, which was in its teens when we watched Kurt Cobain on MTV, coolly dragging on a cigarette between strums of his acoustic guitar. And then, for a brief while, I smoked Parliaments on stoops in New York, too, till it became too expensive to continue. We straddled the time when all the fun kids loitered outside smoking, and the moment when, abruptly, the cigarette became social napalm.