The FDA is Cracking Down on the ‘iPhone Of E-Cigarettes’

If a USB-shaped device laced with unicorn poop-flavored liquid doesn’t sound tasty to you, that might be because you’re not in this product’s target demographic.

The Food and Drug Administration announced this week that it will be cracking down on e-cigarette use among teenagers. Flavored Juul devices, in particular, which are marketed toward young people, have spiked in popularity—partly because they look trendy (some are calling them the “iPhone of e-cigarettes”), and partly because many view them as harmless. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

A Juul e-cigarette

“There’s no doubt that vaping is having a strong biological effect on the lung,” said Robert Tarran, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s Marsico Lung Institute. What’s more, he said, it’s not yet known exactly what nicotine—contained in both conventional cigarettes as well as e-cigarettes—does to the developing lungs of teenagers.

But the sole presence of nicotine, a major ingredient in so-called “e-liquids” that are vaporized inside devices like Juuls (which create an aerosol rather than using a flame to activate the ingredients) makes e-cigarettes a sort of “gateway drug” to cigarette-smoking, even for kids who, without them, might never have picked up a regular cigarette.

“Smoking has been really demonized in the U.S.,” said toxicologist Ilona Jaspers of the University of North Carolina (who is not affiliated with Tarran’s research group). “Kids’ perception of smoking is really poor. But that perception gets softened a little bit once they start vaping.” These same adolescents are then more likely to “graduate” to smoking traditional cigarettes in the transition to adulthood.

Juul is an especially slick culprit. Like a fresh glass of sangria, Juuls are deceptively potent since they come in flavors like mango, fruit medley, crème brûlée—and unicorn poop, whatever that is. And it’s sneaky, too. Disguised as something akin to a thumb drive, these e-cigs blend in with students’ school supplies fairly easily. Juuls seem to have a harsher effect on the body, too.

“Where Juul sort of outperforms probably many of its competitors is its ability to deliver nicotine to the lungs and ultimately, probably, the bloodstream,” Jaspers said.

The FDA said it started an undercover operation this month to make sure that retailers of Juuls—like gas stations, convenience stores, and online sellers—were acting in accordance with the law preventing sales of vaping devices to people under age 21.

The agency is also requiring that Juul Labs (the company that makes the product) turn over documents that could indicate whether or not they’re intentionally appealing to a teenage market.

Tarran, whose research team published an open source database of e-liquid toxicity, says that upon viewing the Juul Labs website, he found some of the answers to the FAQ section suspicious—including one that seemed to indicate that the company isn’t sure what the shelf life of these devices is.

“[My interpretation] is that implies that they haven’t done stability testing on the product,” Tarran said. “A lot of these products haven’t been tested in the same rigorous way you’d expect for pharmaceutical products.”

There has been considerable debate as to whether e-cigarettes are a better alternative to mainstream cigarettes. Jaspers argues that e-cigarettes are, in fact, dangerous—just in a different way.

Her team has found that many of the e-liquids in these products contain cinnamaldehyde, which is effective in shutting down immune cells that protect against invading pathogens.

Tarran’s team also analyzed the composition of about 100 e-liquids to see how quickly cells died in a petri dish after being exposed to each substance. They, too, concluded that cinnamaldehyde and vanillin are associated with higher toxicity values.

Clearly, Jaspers says, e-cigarettes are risky—just not in the same precise manner as regular cigarettes.

“Using cigarettes as a reference point is a bad idea,” Jaspers said. “We need to look at them as a new device, a new exposure, rather than comparing them to cigarettes.”