vape delusion

The brief popping of the juul bubble

A few weeks ago, I received an anxiety-inducing text message regarding a vice that I am not particularly proud of. It is a vice concealed by sleek metal, by powerful marketing. It is a vice that has achieved some degree of cultural omnipresence—always between someone’s fingers, in someone’s pocket, used discreetly in class, on buses and street corners. The vice in question is the JUUL, an e-cigarette that’s recently risen to popularity. The text I received was a screenshot of a conversation of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend. But despite the dizzying degrees of separation between myself and the source of the message, the text, which stated that “one of Chris’s friends” had contracted lung cancer from his frequent JUUL use, shook me up more than I care to admit.

Judging from the flux of Reddit threads from the same day (admittedly not the most sophisticated method of statistical analysis), this text appears to have gone viral in the 48-hour window before and after I received it. The internet responded like I did—with alternating skepticism and panic.

One Reddit user, determined to get to the bottom of the issue, created a “megathread”: “We’ve all heard these rumors the past couple days. If any of you ACTUALLY have PROOF I think all of us on this sub would want to see it—for our safety.” Many respondents said they threw out their JUULs after receiving the message.

What are we to make of this? The story of Chris’ friend, with his “lungs completely black,” seems to have struck a chord with JUUL users. But the curious thing about how people reacted to the message is not that they were simply alarmed by news of any individual JUUL user getting lung cancer. Of course, a young person getting lung cancer is obviously sad; the thought of blackened lungs is viscerally disturbing. But the curious, and unbelievably stupid, thing is that this unverified, impersonal text message seems to have caused JUUL users to seriously consider the potentially lethal consequences of JUULing for the first time. Were JUUL users truly deceived by the JUUL’s iPhone-esque design that severs any connection to cigarettes? Or did this viral screenshot, a message of sudden death, simply cut through a cloud of willful and blissful ignorance? Either way, the JUULing masses were, apparently for the first time, confronted with the face of death.

The current moment in the history of nicotine consumption is something like an “e-cigarette bubble.” E-cigarettes have become immensely popular among young people—according to a report published by the U.S. Surgeon General, e-cigarette use increased by 900% among high schoolers between 2011 and 2015. But scientific literature and regulations haven’t had a chance to catch up.

The literature that does exist is inconclusive on the long-term effects of e-cigarette use because as yet, virtually no one has experienced such effects. The technology is too young. Several studies simulating long-term e-cigarette use with mice, however, suggest a host of potential problems. A study published by NYU earlier this month suggested a correlation between long-term use and cancer and heart disease. Other studies have linked popcorn lung, a scarring of the bronchioles, with e-cigarette flavor additives. Still others have suggested that merely inhaling heated vapor, regardless of chemical additives, can cause serious lung damage. Still, whereas smoking is indisputably bad for you, there remains a degree of ambiguity regarding the effects of inhaling nicotine attached to vaporized glycerin and additional chemicals for flavor directly to the lungs.

If we’re honest with ourselves, though, we know the JUUL is bad for us. The social and consumptive contexts of the JUUL, however, let us believe that the device is a healthy alternative to cigarettes. This is new, at least in terms of widespread social acceptance: a few years back, hookah pens and vapes were certainly around, but they were attached to a certain stigma and humor. Memes and popular culture derided vape-users; the act took on a certain douchiness. Then, the introduction of the JUUL changed the social perception of e-cigarettes, transforming these devices from being the butt of many jokes and a sure sign of millennial stupidity to being fairly acceptable. The e-cigarette reached a whole new demographic: the younger and richer. Sorority girls. Teen boys.

The text message about Chris’s friend popped, for but an instant, the JUUL bubble. We were confronted with the fact that this chemical death was already in us, that black stuff sticking to our ribs, lining our lungs. A rare instance of a widespread, instant reckonings with mortality. The case of the JUUL and the sudden-death, though, is a farce of things like DDT or asbestos. We enacted a mass performance of shock, a feigned outrage in hopes of covering our purposeful ignorance, our cucumber-flavored shame.

And the real kicker? The text message was fake. Our reactions, however, were very real. This was the beauty of it all. We were forced to deal with the fact, even if only for a moment, that we were dying at the hands of a sleek USB drive of a vape. It was a simulated death, a digging of practice graves. And what now? We retreat from this death: return to ritual, hide behind the ether of our ignorances, those clouds of sweet smoke.