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Opinion This vape craze should never have been allowed to happen

Juul brand vape cartridges in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

Todd White is superintendent of the Blue Valley School District in Johnson County, Kan. It’s an enviable position. The Blue Valley schools serve a relatively upscale population in the suburbs of Kansas City. On an average day, more than 95 percent of Blue Valley students are in school. The graduation rate is 97 percent. The dropout rate, less than 1 percent. Every student in grade three and above has a computer.

Yet White confessed recently that his prosperous district is in the midst of an epidemic. “In my 35 years in education, I’ve never seen anything that has been so rapid and devastating to the health and well-being of students, nor so disruptive to the daily work of teachers and administrators in educating our students,” he said of the crisis. What wreaks such havoc?


Blue Valley has joined the rest of the major public school districts in Kansas’s most populous county in suing the company behind Juul, an insidious electronic nicotine delivery system designed to resemble a pocket-size data storage flash drive. The districts are joining other school boards across the country in seeking to recover their costs in time, trouble and technology spent fighting a public health disaster.

As illnesses and deaths linked to vaping continue to rise, public officials have begun a crackdown on e-cigarettes. (Video: The Washington Post)

The school district lawsuits are added to the catalogue of woes besetting the cynical opportunists who undid decades of good work to create a new generation of nicotine addicts. While piously claiming to serve adult smokers, Juul used attractive models, viral social media and misleading messages to get its potent products into the mouths of teens, according to a comprehensive study by Stanford University’s School of Medicine. The Food and Drug Administration has seized thousands of pages of company documents, congressional investigators have grilled company executives, state attorneys general have filed suit, and angry lawmakers are clamping down in state and local jurisdictions.

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It couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch. Juul is the brainchild of two Stanford design students, Adam Bowen and James Monsees, whose master’s degree project some 15 years ago involved plans for an electronic cigarette that would deliver nicotine hits without the noxious and unhealthy effects of burning tobacco.

Sounds good, right? The FDA was sufficiently charmed by the supposed benefits of electronic cigarettes that the agency was slow to regulate the devices. Meanwhile, the company founded by Bowen and Monsees set about fine-tuning their idea. It developed a vaporizer that resembled a high-tech gadget rather than the cylindrical cigarette look-alikes and bong-like pipes already on the market. And in a major chemical breakthrough, it perfected a “vape juice” based on nicotine salts rather than free-base nicotine. This allowed the company to deliver more of the addictive drug without the harsh effect that makes new smokers gag and hack.

And there’s the tragedy: new smokers. When Juul debuted in 2015, the clever little rectangle wasn’t aimed exclusively at existing smokers — people who might receive a net health benefit from switching their addiction to a smokeless device. Eye-catching ads, viral hashtags and social media celebrities pushed the product into America’s high schools and middle schools.

The effect has been terrible. Use of tobacco-related products by teenagers was falling at the time of Juul’s launch, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, but that hopeful trend is ruined now. Overall use by high school students rose 38 percent from 2017 to 2018, driven by a 78 percent rise in the daily use of e-cigarettes. “Juuling” is a verb known to tens of millions of American children today; more than 3 million of them Juul daily.

Regulators have moved to ban many of the kid-friendly flavors in which Juul’s scientists cloaked their highly addictive product. No more “fruit medley,” “mango” or “crème brûlée.” Sadly, the horse is out of the barn. Anyone who has experienced nicotine addiction can report that kicking the habit is easier to pledge than to accomplish. An untold number of those 3 million-plus high school Juulers will be battling to quit for years, perhaps decades, to come.

And get this: We know nothing of the long-term health effects of vaping. Nicotine’s potential harm to the development of young brains is well-documented, but the downstream toll will accrue over time.

This vape craze should never have been allowed to happen. It is a double failure: a failure of governance on the part of federal regulators who should never have permitted a new nicotine delivery system to proliferate without oversight, and a moral failure by investors willing to peddle drugs to kids. But now it’s cleanup time, and as so often happens, the task of remediating failure falls heavily on our schools. It’s only fair that the people who’ve made money on Juul now shoulder the costs that schools are paying — and pay enough in punitive damages to make others think twice before chasing such unseemly business.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Outlawing flavored vaping likely wouldn’t kill the demand for e-cigarettes, but it’s a start

Scott Gottlieb: This is what the Trump administration should do on vaping

Letter to the Editor: A cure for the vaping problem: Require a doctor’s prescription to buy e-cigarettes

The Post’s View: Trump must keep his promises on vaping

Fred Hiatt: We failed on tobacco and opioids. Can we get it right on vaping?