Though Emory is supposed to be a tobacco-free campus, there always seems to be a small crowd of smokers gathered outside the Robert W. Woodruff Library. Recently, however, students have been increasingly turning to Juuls, or e-cigarettes, which have gained traction among young adults and teens.
Over the past decade, Associate Professor at the Rollins School of Public Health Carla Berg has studied alternative tobacco products such as cigarillos and e-cigarettes. In an interview with the Wheel, Berg explained the challenges researchers and politicians face in trying to regulate and understand these new tobacco products.
“It’s a perfect storm of new technologies that are making it really hard to get a solid understanding of what these products could potentially cause and how their marketing is being done,” Berg said.
Although Juuls and other e-cigarettes were initially marketed to the American public as a safer alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes, Berg said the question of whether e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes is “an ongoing and controversial issue.”
“Plenty of research has been accumulated on both sides, which makes the literature inconclusive,” Berg said.
Berg added that using any nicotine product is “definitely more dangerous than being a non-user.”
Despite this, the assumption that vaping is safe has persisted, possibly thanks to social media. Much of Juul’s advertising was done through social media, which poses a challenge for researchers and regulators because online advertisement is not as regulated as public and print advertising like billboards or commercials. Therefore, is difficult for researchers and regulators to determine to whom Juul was advertising and what they were claiming.
“We know there are potential cardiovascular effects [of e-cigarettes],” Berg said. “We’re not sure about cancer risks, and one can assume addiction is a risk.”
Michelle Mun (21C), who uses a Juul, said she knew students who were addicted to e-cigarettes in high school.
“I’ve heard of kids from my high school who are like 15, 16, leaving class to go to the bathroom just so they can Juul,” Mun said.
“A lot of my friends use a Juul in class, during exams, in the library or when we’re out eating dinner,” said Muskaan Khanna (21C), who says she started using a Juul because all her friends started using. “When I have a free day, it’s usually in my hand 60 percent of the time, but I don’t carry it to class.”
Meanwhile, Noah Whit (21C) has never used a Juul because of the risk of nicotine addiction.
“I’ve thought about using a Juul before,” Whit said, “but I read that they have a crazy amount of nicotine and that you can get heavily addicted.”
Though decades of robust scientific research has focused on the risks of cigarette use, the same is not true for e-cigarettes, which only became popular in 2011. Without more time and information gathering, scientists and activists have had trouble communicating the risks of vaping to the public.
“Some major anti-tobacco campaigns have been silent on e-cigarettes,” Berg said. “This has caused a lot of youth and young adults to make the assumption that they are safe.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has prohibited minors from purchasing tobacco products, e-cigarettes included. However, many states allow 18 year olds to buy tobacco products, allowing some high schoolers to distribute tobacco products throughout their schools.
FDA regulators taking action to keep e-cigarettes out of youthful hands must also account for the ways in which regulation will affect traditional smokers.
According to Berg, taxation and banning sweet flavors may serve to reduce teen usage, but the steps may also discourage traditional cigarette smokers from switching to vapes.