Juuling and Scrolling the Days Away

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In 2018, the U.S. nicotine vaporizer market could increase 25 percent from 2017, giving it a $5.5 billion share of the traditional cigarette’s $120 billion market dominance. And a thin, discreet vaporizer called Juul controls 60 percent of that market.

For The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino hits that vape herself while looking closely at the ways American teenagers have embraced Juul, turning the brand name into a verb, and giving rise to parental “vape detectors.” Part of Juul’s genius is the way it separates itself from cigarettes. As Tolentino puts it, its designers” avoided the roundness of a cigarette, and the glowing tip, because they wanted people who used the Juul to feel as if they were doing something new.” With that tabula rasa, teenagers have created something wholly their own.

If you’re over forty, your idea of smoking was likely shaped by Madison Avenue and Hollywood: the strong-jawed cowboy lighting a Marlboro, Lauren Bacall asking for a match. Juul has been defined by Instagram and Snapchat. The company’s official Instagram account, @juulvapor, is age-appropriate and fairly boring—it has an aesthetic reminiscent of Real Simple,and forty-four thousand followers. But viral, teen-centric Juul fan accounts like @doit4juul (a hundred and ten thousand followers) are populated with a different sort of imagery: a bodybuilder Juuling in a tank top that says “Real Men Eat Ass”; a baby (labelled “me”) being shoved into a birthday cake (“the Juul”) by her mom (“my nicotine addiction”); a topless college student who has a Juul in her mouth and is wearing a pink hat that says “Daddy.” Teen Juul iconography radiates a dirtbag silliness. Vapes are meme-ready, funny in a way that cigarettes never were: the black-and-white photograph of James Dean smoking in shirtsleeves has been replaced with paparazzi snaps of Ben Affleck ripping an e-cig in his car. In one popular video, a girl tries to Juul with four corn dogs in her mouth. In another, teens at a party suck on a flash drive that they’ve mistaken for a Juul. “I know one of the girls in that video!” a high-school senior from Maryland told me. “It was a huge deal at my school.”

Juuling and scrolling through Instagram offer strikingly similar forms of contemporary pleasure. Both provide stimulus when you’re tired and fidgety, and both tend to become mindless tics that fit neatly into rapidly diminishing amounts of free time. (You can take two Juul hits and double-tap a bunch of pics in about ten seconds. You need an inefficient five minutes to burn a paper tube of tar and leaves into ash.) The omnipresence of Juul on social media has undoubtedly made kids overestimate the extent of teen Juuling—young people tend to think that their peers drink, smoke, and hook up more than they actually do. And it’s all beyond regulation: the F.D.A. can control the behavior of companies advertising nicotine for profit, but it can do nothing about teens advertising nicotine to one another for free.

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