The Crown JUUL on campus: College students’ love of e-cigarettes continues at CSU

Blake O'Brien

In the world of e-cigarettes, JUUL-clutching celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio have become the millennial Marlboro Man.

A walk through the Morgan Library provides a snapshot of vaping’s popularity: JUULs charging in the USB ports of laptops, pod-less friends asking to bum a hit, students sucking on e-cigarettes in the sleeve of their shirt and exhaling a gasp of invisible, mango-flavored vapor.

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According to a Gallup poll on e-cigarettes from earlier this year, 16 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds use cigarettes regularly or occasionally, while 20 percent of the age-group vapes.

Jake Lane, an undeclared junior at Colorado State University, started vaping as a senior in high school. A couple of his friends came over to watch an episode of “Survivor” and they both had JUULs. One of them asked if Lane wanted to try it, and by the next weekend, he had one of his own. 

Senior psychology major, Jeff Cox takes a puff on his e-cigarette between classes under the Clark Building at Colorado State University. (Photo credit: Zane Watson)

“They had deals for $30 starter packs with a battery, charger and a four-pack of pods, which is a great deal,” Lane said, adding that he got this deal twice, the second after losing his initial purchase.

He is one of many millennials that have taken to the trend. 

Craig Trumbo, a journalism professor at CSU, said that social normative factors play a major role in the acceptability of vaping. This includes things like seeing others vape in public, on social media and in advertisements.

Trumbo has published multiple studies about the social acceptability of e-cigarettes that were supported by the Colorado School of Public Health at CSU and the National Institutes of Health.

“A good deal of the progress against smoking was made through the prohibition of lighting up in public spaces and the stigmatization that came along with smokers being sequestered to designated places,” Trumbo said.

CSU banned smoking and vaping on parts of campus including Center Avenue in January 2016. Smokers are seldom found on the plaza or underneath Clark B anymore, but the presence of e-cigarettes on campus is obvious.

Map of tobacco-free zone at Colorado State University
The tobacco-free zone, implemented in 2016, runs through the academic spine of campus. (Image Courtesy of Colorado State University.)

Trumbo said e-cigarettes are often viewed as a positive innovation among young people.

“(E-cigarettes) have been promoted as a ‘better’ and ‘newer’ way to enjoy nicotine,” Trumbo said. “Belief that e-cigs are not addictive fuels a generally more risk-accepting youth culture.”

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The original vaping devices – those with refillable tanks – were introduced in the United States in 2006. The advent of pod-based systems, most notably the JUUL in 2015, is what sparked the insurgency of e-cigarettes.

I think it’s important for students to know that they aren’t producing e-cigarettes to help you quit – they want people to be addicted. The industry can’t survive without it. This is the newest evolution of addiction.” Andrea Coryell, Assistant Director of Substance Abuse Prevention for the Colorado State University Health Network.

“(Refillable e-cigarettes) are so bulky. You can see them in your pocket,” Lane said. “With JUUL, it’s discreet. I can have it in my hand, take a hit in public and not blow out any smoke.”

Other popular pod-based systems include Suorin, Mi-Pod and PHIX. These e-cigarettes take cartridges filled with salt-based nicotine as opposed to juice refills where freebase nicotine is used.

“Salt-based nicotine most closely mimics the effects of nicotine in cigarettes,” said Andrea Coryell, the assistant director of substance abuse prevention for the CSU Health Network.

Salt-based nicotine contains 59 mg of nicotine per mL of e-juice, while freebase nicotine can be anywhere between 0 and 36 mg of nicotine per mL of e-juice. Coryell said higher nicotine levels means greater potential for addiction and negative health impacts.

“Nicotine negatively affects normal brain development in teens and young adults,” Coryell said. “(Nicotine) can also damage the heart, lungs, reproductive system, contribute to insulin resistance and increase acid reflux.”

Coryell said e-cigarettes also contain other ingredients that are potentially harmful including diacetyl, a compound found in e-liquids with sweet flavors which can cause a lung disease called “popcorn lung.”

Even still, many young people think it’s all vapor-and-mirrors. According to that same Gallup poll on e-cigarettes, 22 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds think vaping is very harmful, while 83 percent said they think the same about smoking. 

This is in part due to the vaping industry’s advertisement methods, Trumbo said. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration launched the Real Cost Campaign, aimed at “debunking myths” about e-cigarettes, according to the FDA’s website.

“I believe advertising has been seeking to target younger and younger persons by modeling vaping behavior by slightly older persons and pushing the flavorings,” Trumbo said.

Those flavorings are a major part of the appeal for Lane.

“Even though I know e-cigarettes are unhealthy from research and stuff, it just doesn’t feel as unhealthy because you’re tasting these good flavors,” Lane said.

Since JUUL’s inception, the company has marketed itself as a substitute to cigarettes. The title of JUUL’s website homepage reads, “The Smoking Alternative, unlike any E-Cigarette or Vape.”

Coryell said that this messaging is simply not true.

“I think it’s important for students to know that they aren’t producing e-cigarettes to help you quit – they want people to be addicted,” Coryell said. “The industry can’t survive without it. This is the newest evolution of addiction.”

Blake O’Brien can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @BTweetsOB