Health & Fitness

It’s called Juul and kids are crazy about using it to vape. Can Jay Nixon stop them?

Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is representing a conservative college suing the University of Missouri.
Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is representing a conservative college suing the University of Missouri. File photo

Juul has a problem: the vaping products the company makes have become very popular with people who are supposed to be too young to use them.

Enter former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.

Nixon, a Democrat, is one of 14 people who have been tapped for an advisory committee that will make recommendations to California-based Juul Labs about how to keep its products out of the hands of people under 18.

The panel may be an attempt to head off legal trouble. It's led by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who was part of a $200 billion settlement with traditional tobacco companies in 1998. The suit that led to the settlement accused the companies of marketing to minors, among other offenses.

Nixon, then Missouri's attorney general, also was involved in that litigation.

In fact, 10 of the 14 members of the advisory panel are current or former state attorneys general or deputy attorneys general. Only two are health experts.

Miller picked the panel after Juul requested his help in reducing teen use.

Juul has seized more than half the market for electronic cigarettes since developing vaping devices that resemble USB drives in 2015.

The company says its products are intended to help adults quit smoking cigarettes, but they have proved to be the vaping devices of choice for kids as well. About one in 16 people ages 12 to 17 report having tried Juul, according to Truth Initiative, an anti-tobacco non-profit.

The group was one of several that sent a letter in April to Scott Gottlieb, the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, asking him to "take immediate action" to stop "the dramatic rise in teen usage of Juul electronic cigarettes."

Alvin Singh, a pediatric pulmonologist at Children's Mercy Hospital, said he's also become alarmed at the rise of Juul after talking to high school students in the Kansas City area.

"I'd heard about Juul, but I did not realize how prevalent it is," Singh said Friday during a presentation at a conference in Kansas City hosted by the American Lung Association.

Singh said the youth appeal of Juul is obvious: it's easy to hide at school precisely because it looks like a USB drive and even plugs into computers. It's got a sleek, modern design with colorful marketing. And its vaping liquid comes in sweet flavors like Fruit Medley and Creme Brulee.

Singh said some students also think that Juul is harmless because unlike traditional cigarettes, it doesn't use an open flame. Like most e-cigarettes, Juul using high heat to vaporize small canisters of liquid.

Singh said that when he spoke to students at Shawnee Mission East High School, some of them pushed back on his concerns about youth use, saying it was just water vapor.

"It didn't go over very well," Singh said.

In addition to water, the liquid pods sold by Juul and other vaping companies usually contain nicotine, which is addictive, and other chemicals.

Singh said that if he were absolutely forced to choose between using traditional tobacco products and vaping, he would choose vaping, but neither is safe. There's no long-term outcomes data yet on the chronic health effects of vaping, and some vaping products have caused acute injuries, either by exploding or searing the throat and lungs.

"The acute thing is interesting," Singh said, adding that more research is needed. "Because these are chemicals that are heated at a high temperature."