(Un)intended Consequences

Remember when you were indestructible?

It was probably back in your teenage years, when your body was always ready to bail you out of whatever stupidity you put it through.  It would heal when you injured it, and recover when you ingested too much of something that seemed like a good idea at the time.   When your brain ended up a little wobbly after an action-packed Friday night, it was mostly steady again by Saturday morning.

Now we’re older, and perhaps wiser.  We recognize alcohol, drugs and cigarettes for what they are: products that make someone somewhere very rich while doing us very little good.

I was a kid back in 1964 when the US Surgeon General announced that smoking was bad for you.  Americans were shocked. You would have thought the world was ending.  Tobacco companies called it fake science and government overreach, but the following year Congress required tobacco products to carry health warnings, and by 1970 tobacco advertising was banned from television.

These days, no one is arguing about the health effects of smoking.  Tobacco products carry a devastating one-two punch:  the nicotine creates addiction, while the tobacco loads all those time-bomb carcinogens into you until the cancer comes, and the jig is up.

And during the last fifty years we’ve been getting the message.  In 1964, 46% of us smoked.  Today, it’s 18%.

And then came e-cigarettes, or vaping.

When vaping hit the scene, I thought it sounded like a good idea.  To the nation’s remaining nicotine addicts, here was a chance to lose the toxic smoke, and gradually dial down your nicotine until you were ready to drop the habit altogether.  I know several people who used vaping to finally break free from smoking.

Well, stupid me.  It turns out (surprise!) that the vaping companies had more in mind than improving the health of former smokers.   After all, if that was their mission they would have ultimately put themselves out of business as their customers became tobacco and nicotine free—and where are the profit margins in that?

The goal, it turns out, was simply to create a new generation of addicts.  Thanks to modern technology, today’s nicotine fix comes in flavors like mango, cool mint, fruit medley, and crème brulee.  And thanks to a vaping 2.0 product called Juul, you don’t even get the tell-tale vapor clouds that used to wrap around your head like a personal fog bank.  Just suck on a Juul device that looks a lot like a thumb drive, and all the nicotine you crave is yours with only minimum smoke release.  Just enough to learn some cool vaping tricks—easily mastered thanks to dozens of teen-slanted YouTube tutorials.

For our current generation of indestructible teens, Juul rocks.   Discreet, fun flavors, and a nicotine adrenaline buzz that online user reviews declare to be way stronger than what you get from those old-style cigarettes, bro.

That, my friends, is money.  Literally.  Juul is now a $15 billion company whose stock price has climbed 56% since 2015.  It’s one of the fastest growing start-ups in history, and currently controls 70% of the vaping market.

And, not to be a downer or anything, but Juul is almost singlehandedly reversing the progress made over the last fifty years in reducing nicotine use in the United States.  Juul use is reported to have increased 75% in the last year, and today about one-in-five American teens use Juul at least once a week.

And the market is going nowhere but up.  Scientists say nicotine is a harder habit to break than heroin.  So after the nicotine rewires your brain to make you an addict you’re likely a customer for life.   Then throw in those bubble gum flavors, teen stupidity, and a little old fashioned peer pressure, and you’re on your way to stockholder dividends.

And yes, it’s illegal to sell Juul products to teenagers, but when has illegality ever stopped market demand for anything?

Meanwhile, this week the FDA is launching a new ad campaign to convince teenagers that e-cigarette addiction isn’t really all that cool.  I wish them luck, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.  Because, as we all know, every teenager is indestructible.


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