Hope Anderson ‘22

Staff writer and web editor

Note: At the request of students interviewed, several names in this story have been changed.

On Monday, October 15th, the North Carolina Department of Justice (NCDOJ) announced an investigation into the manufacturing and marketing practices of Juul — a product which controls roughly 70% of the e-cigarette market and is becoming increasingly popular among teens.

According to a recent report by the NCDOJ, around 17% of high school students and 5% of middle school students in North Carolina reported having used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days.

A 2014 study placed that number at around 14% for college students nationwide, and noted that use was on the rise.

Student Health Advisor Kate Griffith ‘21 sees vaping at Davidson as “very pervasive,” which is not unusual for an American college campus.

Health Educator Georgia Ringle agrees. “I see people vaping all over campus,” she said.

Juuls operate by heating and then condensing vape juice, which is made of liquid nicotine, preservatives, and often a flavorant.

Vape juice is classified as “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) by the FDA. However, chemistry professor Dr. Cindy Hauser and biology professor Dr. Karen Bernd, who are currently researching the composition and toxicity of hookah smoke, both noted that this label applies to food safety standards and does not mean a product is approved to be inhaled.

“Something that your stomach can digest is going to be different from something that your pretty delicate lung tissue can deal with having sit on its surface,” said Bernd. 

“You’re inhaling stuff into your lungs; on no level can that be good, unless it’s air,” added Hauser.

One possible risk e-cigarette users assume is an increased likelihood of infection in their lungs; certain flavors, such as mint or menthol, allow harmful bacteria to more easily enter a cell.

E-cigarettes do not contain tar, which is one of their main health advantages over traditional cigarettes. Still, according to the CDC, they can include “heavy metals like lead, volatile organic compounds, and cancer-causing agents.”

Bernd noted that aside from Juul’s flavorants and additives, pure nicotine carries consequences.

“Nicotine is a highly addictive substance. It changes your brain chemistry,” said Bernd. “On a college campus, the thing that is probably overlooked the most and needed direly is more sleep and regular sleep patterns. Nicotine disrupts that. Why stack the deck against yourself?”

Because e-cigarettes are so new, there has not been time to study their chronic health effects. That being said, Hauser thinks this should not stop the scientific community from drawing conclusions and advising accordingly.

“If we wait for harm to be caused, then harm is caused. The goal is to be able to do enough modeling of ‘this looks like this’ or ‘here’s what we know about that’ to be able to say ‘here are the risks associated with it,’” said Hauser.

Overall, Bernd and Hauser agree vaping is a healthier alternative to smoking but still poses significant health risks.

“It’s not harmless. If you don’t vape, don’t start,” said Bernd.

Some students acknowledge the health risks juuling likely poses but are not concerned enough to stop.

“This sounds bad, but my lungs can get f*cked up. I don’t really care. I’m 18 years old; I think it’ll be ok,” said Eve Mitchell ‘22.

Others think juuls’ risks are overemphasized.

“People want to keep high school students from getting hooked on [vaping], so I think they exaggerate the health effects,” said Helen Johnson ‘19. “As far as health concerns, it’s not top of my list.”

“Smoking is obviously very bad for you, but vaping is probably not worse than car exhaust or electromagnetic radiation you get from cell phones,” agreed William Cook ‘19.

Cook uses around a pod a day, which is the nicotine equivalent to at least one pack of cigarettes.

Johnson compared juuling to other unhealthy habits, such as drinking caffeine or eating McDonald’s.

However, Bernd thinks the “anything in moderation” argument does not apply to vaping the same way it may apply to other unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as eating fast food, since nicotine permanently alters brain chemistry and has such a strong potential for addiction.

Mitchell remembers feeling shocked when a twelve year old child asked to hit her juul on a family vacation.

“Are you kidding me? This kid is twelve! That’s so bad for your brain, at twelve!” said Mitchell.

However, the same concerns did not extend to her personal health.

“My brain’s fine. Nicotine is not going to mess with my brain anymore,” said Mitchell.

According to Bernd, the human brain continues developing until the age of 25.

E-cigarettes were first introduced as a way to help one quit smoking, though they are not currently approved by the CDC to treat nicotine addiction. In fact, research shows vaping may actually lead to cigarette use. Teens who vape are seven times more likely to start smoking later in life (NCDOJ).

Juul strikes a delicate balance between distancing itself from and comparing itself to a traditional cigarette. One the one hand, a Juul does not carry the same stigma as a cigarette.

The NCDOJ reports that the product’s “sleek design, colorful cases, and kid-friendly flavors” disproportionately attract young people.

“They are so small, and they don’t look like a cigarette at all,” continued Bernd. 

Still, simply being in the family of nicotine inhalers can invoke comparisons to traditional cigarettes (which are more harmful than e-cigarettes), downplaying Juul’s negative health effects.

“Because the vapor dissipates so quickly and because the smells don’t linger, there’s the perception that it doesn’t cause harm,” said Bernd.

Director of Residence Life Jason Schaffer agrees, saying just because e-cigarettes are  healthier than traditional cigarettes doesn’t mean they don’t pose risk, especially to individuals who otherwise would have never used nicotine based products.

“We get into conversations about something being better than something out there, versus something being good for us overall,” said Schaffer.

In general, students expressed more concern for the financial, rather than physiological, effects of vaping.

“The worst part is the pods are $4 a piece,” said Cook.

“I wouldn’t be mad if they discontinued [the flavors]. They honestly should; I’d save so much money,” continued Mitchell. 

As with smoking, vaping is a lifestyle choice each student makes for themself. However, Schaffer worries the risks associated with e-cigarettes may not be widely understood.

“Folks who are making decisions that are going to affect their health or well-being long term —  affect their brain chemistry, affect their lungs, affect any of those things — should really be able to do so informed,” said Schaffer. “We may look back and say ‘I would have made better choices had I had that information.’”