J is for Juul: How we kicked one habit and found another

The 2010s saw the continued decline of smoking, partly helped by substitutes that have thrown up their own concerns. 

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In 2010, smoking in England had fallen to a historic low of 19.6 per cent. The practice had been in steady decline for years, accelerated by the introduction of the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces in Scotland in 2006 and the rest of the UK in 2007. The architects of the ban had argued that it was necessary to protect workers in smoky environments from second hand smoke, though their aim was to further reduce smoking overall. It worked.

Throughout the rest of the 2010s smoking declined further until, in 2018, the last year for when the Office for National Statistics offers records, the number of over 16s in the UK who smoked stood at 16.3 per cent.

Similar falls were seen across most of the West. In the US the percentage of adults smoking fell from 20 per cent in 2005 to 13.7 per cent in 2018. Even in France, rates are now declining rapidly, down from 30 per cent in 2016 to 27 per cent in 2018.

Globally, the trend is less clear. Faced with increasingly stringent regulation on marketing, bans on smoking in public spaces and taxes designed to discourage smokers, tobacco companies have reoriented much of their efforts towards poorer countries. But worldwide, the number of people addicted to cigarettes is falling.

And yet a new form of nicotine addiction has risen steadily in its place. The first patent for a vaporiser to deliver a flavoured liquid in a similar manner to cigarettes was filed in 1967, and versions containing nicotine, as well methods for heated tobacco rather than burning it, began emerging on to market in the 1980s but failed to take off. It wasn’t until 2003 that the first patent for the devices we now recognise as electronic cigarettes – which turn a flavoured liquid normally containing nicotine into vapour using a heating element – were filed.

E-cigarettes have been pushed as a way for smokers to give up more harmful tobacco products, with the UK’s National Health Service currently advising that they are 95 per cent safer. The number of “vapers” – as they’ve become known – has increased from seven million in 2011 to 41 million in 2018.

Much of that growth has recently been driven by one company – Juul Labs – originally founded as Pax in 2007 by two former smokers James Monsees and Adam Bowen. After developing a number of “vapes”, the pair brought out the Juul device in 2015.

The Juul’s two most obvious innovations were convenience and style. The Juul is a slim device that looks like a USB stick. It can be charged in a computer port and uses small, easily replaceable pods. The other key but less marketable ingredient was the discovery by Pax Labs that adding benzoic acid to the nicotine fluid would mimic the speedy delivery of a cigarette.

These characteristics have driven Juul’s success – it is currently valued at $16.4 bn and controls half the US vaping market – and turned it into a bugbear for regulators. The company is widely blamed for popularising vaping with teens, in particular teens who have rarely or never smoked. In 2018, 30 per cent of US children in their final year of high school said they vaped regularly. The company has been repeatedly targeted by the US Federal Drug Agency, with particular scrutiny of the way it markets its products.

The reputation of Juul, and vaping in general, took a further hit this year with the emergence in the US of more than 2,000 cases of lung disease linked to vaping, including scores of fatalities. Though the initially unexplained outbreak has since been linked to the specific use of a specific additive not found in most vaping fluids, perceptions that vaping is virtually harmless have proved hard to maintain.

As the decade comes to a close, public health officials remain pleased with the success of anti-smoking strategies and, in the UK at least, broadly happy with the role that vaping has played. But that hasn’t erased lingering concerns that companies like Juul are simply replacing one harmful addiction with another.

> This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s.

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Jasper Jackson is a freelance journalist and media columnist for the New Statesman.