Addiction, aesthetics and other nicotine narratives

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Occidental College student smoking a cigarette outside Stearns Hall. Friday, Nov, 1, 2019. Nanuka Jorjadze/ The Occidental

As she walked her cat down the Academic Quad on a leash one smoggy November afternoon, Drea del Bosque (sophomore) took a hit of her Juul.

Del Bosque’s cat, who climbed up a quad bench to perch precariously on her shoulder as she spoke, just turned 5 months old, but nicotine has been in del Bosque’s life for much longer. Her father gave her her first cigarette when she was 5, and she was a regular smoker from age 9 until her first year of high school.

“I grew up living in Mexico, and in Mexico, everybody smokes,” del Bosque said. “It was just something that everyone around me did, so I didn’t have bad connotations. I didn’t think of it in a bad way, ever.”

When she was 6, del Bosque’s family moved to the South Side of Chicago, where smoking was also fairly common among people she knew. She found out about the Juul from her brother in 2015, when the company Juul Labs, Inc. first introduced it, and soon got one of her own. She was the first of her friends to make the switch. Now, del Bosque only smokes cigarettes when she runs out of Juul pods.

“I’d rather just have the nicotine and not all that tar,” del Bosque said. “The one reason why it is better for me to smoke cigarettes is that I’m not one of those people that smokes a pack a day. I’ve never been like that. But when I have Juuls, I can definitely go through a pod a day, and that’s equivalent to a whole pack of cigarettes.”

Packs of cigarettes, Juuls and bags of rolling tobacco emerge from backpacks every afternoon on Occidental’s quad, where nicotine-using students gather on the benches to chat through sunlit wisps of smoke and vapor. Since the Juul’s invention — and the subsequent sharp rise in vaping among underage students — lawmakers across the U.S. have debated the device’s usefulness as a smoking-cessation tool. As a result of widespread criticism, Juul Labs, Inc. stopped selling its fruitier flavors in October, and the Food and Drug Administration discussed banning flavored e-cigarettes altogether — though the Trump administration halted the ban Nov. 4. Meanwhile, U.S. smoking rates have dropped 22 percent among adults and 44 percent among youth since 2013, according to the American Lung Association. As of 2017, 11.3 percent of Californian adults smoked — the second-lowest rate of any state. (Utah is the lowest at 8.9 percent, while West Virginia comes in highest at 26 percent.)

For the students on the quad, a cigarette or Juul session is simply an opportunity to de-stress and socialize, providing a moment of peace in the middle of a hectic day. Some of those students, like del Bosque, started as smokers and later switched to vaping. Some use both interchangeably. Others, such as Mike Turner (junior), did the opposite of what Juul Labs, Inc. claims to intend — they switched from Juuling to smoking cigarettes.

Turner began Juuling at 16 when he was in high school. At first, he did it for fun and for the buzz the nicotine gave him. But when his friends all decided they did not want to Juul anymore, Turner had a hard time following suit.

“When I decided I was gonna quit Juuling, it lasted, like, a minute,” Turner said. “Then I started hanging out with a bunch of people that rolled their own cigarettes, and then I started rolling my own cigarettes. Now I smoke cigarettes regularly.”

Turner briefly considered going back to the Juul, but his home state’s laws stopped him. Turner is from Michigan, which placed a six-month ban on the sale of flavored nicotine products in September; the state’s governor has the option to renew it after the six months are up. As of October, lawmakers have been considering lifting the ban due to the harm it causes small businesses and former smokers attempting to quit. But Turner is still deterred.

“I was thinking about [getting another Juul], but then I’m going to go home and then not have it. And as much as I would like to quit nicotine altogether, it’s a really hard thing to do, so I guess I’m just smoking cigarettes now,” Turner said. “It feels very Big Tobacco.”

Occidental College student smoking a cigarette outside Stearns Hall. Friday, Nov, 1, 2019. Nanuka Jorjadze/ The Occidental

Occidental psychology professor Patricia Cabral, who specializes in studying health-risk behaviors among young people, said she believes tobacco companies do play a role in the popularity of vaping. Although e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, Cabral said tobacco companies are still involved in their development — for example, the nicotine salt formula that Juul uses in its pods originated in the laboratories of R.J. Reynolds, the company that owns Camel cigarettes. According to Cabral, the impact of e-cigarettes has been mixed. While they can help former smokers quit, they can also get nonsmokers hooked on nicotine, eventually leading them to become cigarette smokers themselves.

Cabral said another reason people begin smoking is the social aspect: they see their parents or friends smoking and decide to try it as well. The process is similar to peer pressure, she said, but not exactly the same. Rather than having cigarettes forced upon them by pushy peers, people simply see others around them smoking and come to believe it is acceptable — even cool.

Turner, a Comparative Studies in Literature & Culture (CSLC) major, said one of his friends learned to roll cigarettes when he traveled to Greece last year. It quickly became a trend among his peers.

“All of my friends and most of the people in my classes — a lot of our work gets done over a cigarette, and we talk about things over cigarettes,” Turner said. “It’s such a CSLC thing. All the people that I know that roll their own are CSLC majors. It’s very on-brand — it’s a specific aesthetic.”

Isaiah Zarco (junior) and Yoshi Wainwright (junior) are no strangers to the importance of the aesthetic. Wainwright is a smoker with a preference for Marlboro Reds and Parliaments; he sometimes hits his friends’ Juuls, but finds them dissatisfying compared to cigarettes. Zarco, a Chicago native, alternates between smoking and Juuling, though he said smoking came first. Starting at 17, Zarco would treat himself to a cigarette on his way to the train station after work.

“At first, I was like, ‘Ooh, it’s so cool, it’s so aesthetic-y.’ I was like, ‘Ooh, I wanna be an aesthetic h*e,’” Zarco said. “Then I started seeing why people actually smoke cigarettes. I was like, ‘Oh, it gives you that head high.’ The immediate rush. And you’re just like, ‘Yesss!’”

For Wainwright, the process was slower. He grew up in Davis, CA, and said smoking is rare there compared to LA.

“I was one of those kids that would roll up fake grass joints — literal grass joints — when they’re like 14, just to be that kid. So I obviously had a fixation for something,” Wainwright said. “I might have bought a pack in high school, but they were like, Camels, so it doesn’t count. Definitely when I came to LA, it was the first time I felt that feeling of ‘Oh, I need a smoke.’”

Wainwright is a Media Arts & Culture (MAC) major, but said he was also involved in theater during his first two years at Occidental. His favorite time to smoke is after a performance or a film shoot.

“There is nothing quite like getting out of rehearsal, or finishing [an] audition, and then feeling like you’re in the long tradition of actors taking a smoke break. It felt really fun,” Wainwright said. “I obviously was there for the aesthetic.”

Occidental College student smoking a cigarette outside Stearns Hall. Friday, Nov, 1, 2019. Nanuka Jorjadze/ The Occidental

Wainwright is a sporadic smoker: he only buys about a pack a month. Zarco estimated he smokes a pack every two weeks; to save money, he refills empty Juul pods with a bottle of inexpensive vape juice he shares with a friend. Turner rolls up to two packs’ worth of cigarettes in a week, depending on his stress levels, and del Bosque said she vapes a pack of four Juul pods per week when she paces herself — two packs when she doesn’t.

Juuling in LA is not cheap. Juul’s website claims a pack of four pods costs $16 excluding state taxes, but according to del Bosque, California taxes have raised the cost of plainer flavors like tobacco and mint to at least $25. Contraband fruity flavors like mango and cucumber, which are only sold in brick-and-mortar smoke shops, go for $35. The legal age to purchase pods is 21 in California, and being underage adds an extra layer of difficulty: some students use fake IDs, look old enough to avoid being carded or ask friends to buy for them.

Others use a dealer.

Known to friends and customers as the Podfather, one former Occidental dealer* began ordering eight packs of pods at a time in Fall 2018. Originally, the pods were only for him: the Podfather is from a state that does not tax e-cigarettes, and his bulk purchases meant each pack cost only $12.50. He soon began selling the packs to friends for $20, a low price for California that still allowed him to make a profit. He said he thinks the cheap prices were the driving force behind his operation’s popularity.

News of the operation spread by word of mouth, and by Spring 2019, business was booming. The Podfather became a Juul-verified wholesale distributor and hired a small team of 4–5 runners, which he coordinated via group chat, to deliver the pods to students. (The runners got a cut of the profits.) Once at a formal, the Podfather said, he saw a student Juuling and asked where she had gotten the pod. The student said his own name back to him, oblivious to the fact she was speaking to her dealer.

The Podfather said he had a customer base of around 40 people. He typically sold between 20–50 packs per week, but toward the end of Spring 2019, he could sell 50 packs within three or four days. His most popular flavor was mint, though he personally prefers mango.

“The issue with the pods [was], it takes two weeks to ship,” the Podfather said. “I would usually sell everything I had in a week, and then the next week, a bunch of people would be messaging me and I wouldn’t have any.”

The Podfather no longer sells pods, and he has personally returned to smoking cigarettes — only two a day, since he is trying to wean himself off altogether. At the height of his vaping habit, he went through a pod a day, which he said was too expensive for him. He attributed the fall of his Juul empire to rising costs and increasing regulations on Juul products.

“I don’t think the business is really worth it anymore as Juul’s cracking down,” the Podfather said. “They’ve replaced all the fruit flavors, and they’re actually in the process of phasing out mint as well.”

Along with the spike in youth vaping, an outbreak of vaping-related illnesses in recent months has contributed to nationwide criticism of the Juul. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2,172 people in the U.S. have exhibited symptoms such as fever, vomiting and fatigue due to vaping, and 42 have died as of Nov. 13.

According to the CDC, the culprit is not Juul pods but the vitamin E acetate found in unregulated THC vape cartridges. But according to del Bosque, the stigma against the Juul remains. She said she is familiar with several production plants in Chicago that make THC cartridges, or carts, look legitimate by shipping empty brand-name carts in from LA and filling them with their own distillate. Del Bosque said the plants’ process is very different from those of regulated dispensaries and vape companies, but it gives those legal manufacturers a bad reputation.

“I think that it’s really dumb that they’re making all these laws because they’re taking away these things [Juuls],” del Bosque said. “It’s a good invention, especially for people who know not to be smoking. And it’s not like these kids — or whatever you want to call them, teenagers — don’t know that obviously, if you’re putting something in your lungs, it’s gonna harm you. I don’t think that it would be right for me, if I had a health issue, to try to sue Juul, because it was still my decision.”

Despite using nicotine for over 10 years, del Bosque said she does not consider herself addicted. Last year, she stopped vaping for six months straight, and she said she did not feel any adverse effects. In comparison, she said, her best friend is definitely addicted.

“It made me really sad,” del Bosque said. “She used to buy 30 packs of mango pods at a time online. She’d drop $700, and that would maybe last her a month. 30 packs! She would go through, like, four pods a day, and she owned three different Juuls, so she would hit them all at the same time.”

Biology professor Kerry Thompson, who specializes in neurobiology, said when a person first smokes or vapes, they get hits of dopamine from the nicotine itself. But once they become addicted, Thompson said, the cues associated with smoking or vaping — such as the environment a person usually smokes in or the people they usually smoke with — stimulate the release of dopamine, not the nicotine. Repeating the same act in the same environment only reinforces the impulse to reach for a Juul or a cigarette.

Zarco said he considers himself addicted to nicotine. He successfully quit for three months over the summer in an attempt to save money, but being back at Occidental weakened his resolve.

“I came back, and I was like, ‘Ah, well, everyone else is doing it.’ I’ve had such a good streak of not smoking, but here I am,” Zarco said. “You don’t know how hard it was [to quit]. You get quitter’s flu: once you quit, you get flu-like symptoms.”

Turner considers himself addicted as well. He regrets developing the addiction but has made his peace with it — he said trying to quit would make him an angrier, more frustrated person than he is when he smokes. Though he knows both smoking and vaping pose risks to his health, Turner now prefers the known dangers of smoking to the still-unknown long-term effects of vaping.

“When I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to just quit nicotine outright, it was like, I would rather know that I’m putting something bad into my body,” Turner said. “I could smoke cigarettes for the next 30 years and get cancer, or I could not smoke cigarettes for the next 30 years and get cancer. It’s more known. Nobody really knows what’s going on with vapes right now.”

Zarco, on the other hand, said he thinks it would be better if more people vaped instead of smoking, despite the unknown risks. If the potential dangers make nicotine users uneasy, he said, it is their own responsibility to quit.

“Everything’s gonna kill you. Literally everything can kill you,” Zarco said. “If you don’t wanna do it, don’t do it. Get a sober app. Get new friend groups. People like to say they’re gonna stop to put themselves in that mentality, but your actions speak louder than your words.”

*The Occidental has omitted the student’s name in accordance with our anonymous source policy. For more information on anonymity, visit our Frequently Asked Questions.

Oona Milliken and Pablo Nukaya-Petralia contributed reporting to this article.