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Front page story: A high school newspaper takes on Juul

“It’s 7:30 a.m. and you’ve just finished getting ready for the school day. As you grab your things and head toward the door, you suddenly remember one crucial part of the day you were about to leave behind. No, it’s not your cup of coffee or your Chromebook, but a crown jewel hidden away, sitting in silence beneath your down pillows, ready to provide you with that sweet, sweet head buzz you crave.”

The story goes on:

“As you pull up to school, music blaring so everyone can hear, you sit in your car waiting for the 8 o’clock bell. Puff after puff, you hit your Juul, preparing for the onslaught of what you tell yourself promises to be a terrible Tuesday. The only thing that gets you through the day seems so small, so insignificant, but it’s the most meaningful thing you’ve ever owned.”

This is the beginning of a cover story that ran this fall in Nighthawk News, the student-run newspaper of First Flight High School in Kill Devil Hills. 

“When I wrote the lede, it was to highlight how ridiculous it looks for someone to be Juuling,” said Hannah Ellington, the student paper’s editor-in-chief, noting the article’s sarcastic tone.

The Juul cover story layout in Nighthawk News. Courtesy of Nighthawk News

So what is this “Juuling” thing that Ellington’s talking about, and why does it matter? This week EducationNC will be sharing stories about students and Juuling from the perspectives of public health, regulation, teacher perceptions, and more. To help understand this article and the series, let’s breakdown some terminology:

  • Vaping: The act of “smoking” an e-cigarette
  • E-cigarette/E-cig: An electronic cigarette, which the National Institutes of Health defines as a battery-operated device “that people use to inhale an aerosol, which typically contains nicotine (though not always), flavorings, and other chemicals.”
  • Vape: Another term for an e-cigarette; short for vaporizor
  • Juul: A brand of vape released in 2015 unique for its sleek, tech-savvy appearance (think USB drive) and usability. The nicotine-based e-cig was originally created by PAX Labs, a cannabis vape company known for inventing the “iPhone of vaporizers” due to their high-tech design. Juul Labs became their own spin-off nicotine-based vape company last year. 
  • Juul pod: A flavored e-liquid cartridge containing as much nicotine as 20 cigarettes. According to a Pax Labs press release back when the patented products came out, “JUUL uses nicotine salts found in leaf tobacco, rather than free-base nicotine, as its core ingredient.”
  • Nicotine salts: According to that same press release, “Nicotine salts are the natural state of nicotine in the tobacco leaf.” What’s the point? The “nicotine salt formulation” and Juul vaporizor system “delivers satisfaction akin to a traditional cigarette.” (Keep in mind here, the original point of an e-cigarette was supposedly to wean smokers off of more harmful cigarettes laden with tar and carcinogens.) Juul Labs is not the only maker of nicotine salts, though they make the proprietary Juul pods. 
  • Juuling: The term for vaping a Juul

If being a synonym of “vaping” wasn’t enough, with nearly three-quarters of the market share of e-cigs, Juul’s tech-savvy vape plugs into your computer USB port to charge, easily fits into your pocket (read: very easy to conceal), and serves up popular flavored e-liquids like mango and mint so users feel like they’re smoking without that cigarette-smoke smell.

But it turns out Juuls aren’t only getting into the hands of people who are trying to quit smoking. From August 2017 to August 2018, Juul sold $1.29 billion of its products, and according to unpublished government data, over three million middle and high schoolers have reported using e-cigs.

“I was seeing around our school and outside of school, students were Juuling,” Ellington said. “It’s known that if you ask the teacher to go to the bathroom, you’re probably going to go Juul in the bathroom, and I’ve seen Juul pods on the ground at school.”

“Outside of school at parties and stuff, people are always Juuling,” Ellington continued. “It’s just very prominent, especially within the freshman and sophomore grades because they want to look cooler to the upperclassmen.”

At the time that Ellington recognized the phenomenon at First Flight, another organization picked up on Juul’s rising popularity among youth. That organization was the Food and Drug Administration.

In early October, the FDA announced it had raided Juul offices and confiscated thousands of Juul marketing documents. The investigation focused on determining whether Juul advertising targeted young people and contributed to what has become an “epidemic” of young people using e-cigs.

In the months after the raid, Juul responded by disabling its Facebook and Instagram accounts and stopping retail sales of certain flavored e-cig pods popular among youth. (More on regulations and responses to the FDA crackdown to come in this week’s Juul series.)

It was the FDA crackdown that prompted newspaper staff to bring up the issue in a brainstorming session, but Ellington said the students hoped the articles would help administrators understand the issue better and also inform her peers more about the substances they were using. 

Principal Tim Albert told Ellington that a teacher turned in a Juul to the office last year, saying that a student dropped it. The teacher had no clue the silver, three-inch device was an e-cigarette. As tobacco-free campuses, and also because e-cigs cannot be sold to minors under the age of 18, schools across the state have banned Juuls and other e-cigarettes.

Besides the prohibition on e-cigs for which students can receive disciplinary action, Ellington said the startling use of Juuls posed other issues for students.

“The rabid amount that students are going through pods that I’ve noticed is insane,” Ellington said. “A Juul pod is a pack of cigarette’s [worth of nicotine] and people tear through those pods in a day, and they start their second one, or they start their third one of that day.”

“It’s insane in the nicotine aspect, but also in the amount of money that they’re spending on this awful habit,” Ellington said.

The story’s cover is a demonstration of the popularity of Juul’s flavored pods, which cost $15.99 for a pack of four on Juul’s site (that you can no longer purchase without age verification). Newspaper staff had a call out to their classmates for the pods to be dropped off at a local coffee shop to make the cover photo possible.

“It’s easily a hundred,” said journalism teacher Steve Hanf of the number of pods the paper staff gathered in one afternoon.

The cover of Nighthawk News for their Juul story. Courtesy of Nighthawk News

While the paper’s article shared health stats and background information on Juuling, not all students appreciated the front page story.

“You know, there’s always going to be some push back on a story like that because the students were pointing out that what all of these people were doing was stupid and illegal and basically just this year’s version of ‘let’s try to be cool,'” said Hanf.

The backlash included students cutting out the photographed Juul from the front page and pretending to smoke it, or posting Snapchat stories while Juuling in jest at the article in the bathroom.

“We also had an instance where a group of boys actually burned our newspaper,” Ellington said. They posted a video of it to social media.

“It was definitely, I guess, hurtful. Because the story’s not aimed at any certain person, so it just seems immature to burn something that we worked so hard on,” Ellington said.

Some of the Nighthawk News staff in their journalism class. Courtesy of Steve Hanf

However, the paper’s staff had taken on sensitive topics before — from gun violence to the dangers women face on campus — and although the topic may have not been popular among students, according to Hanf, the Juul story was appreciated throughout the Kill Devil Hills community.

“The community at large just thinks that what they do is incredibly amazing, the teachers at our school, the people at central office,” Hanf said. “That’s [the] cool thing about our paper … it goes out to 6,000 people.”

Still, Hanf said he thought the topic served a specific purpose being published in the school’s paper.

“Kids are going to be more likely to read a story about vaping and Juuling written by their peers than they are to go read something random online that said, ‘Oh, it’s bad for you, don’t do it,'” Hanf said.

As a result of the article, teachers know what to look for (no more getting away with “this is my flash drive”), administrators are being more clear about courses of action, and some students have had second thoughts. 

“I do know … after the release of this paper, a great number of people on staff have stopped [Juuling],” Ellington said. “It is nice to see that people are taking a step into realizing how harmful Juuls are.”

I asked Hanf last week if he knew that some of his students had stopped vaping as a result of reporting on the story.

“I heard that for the first time this morning,” he said. “I thought that was kind of cool.”

Read the high school’s full cover story here, and stay tuned for the rest of our series on Juuling, starting tomorrow with the science of Juul.

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.