Coverage of
e-cigarettes walks a fine line

November 20, 2018

Suddenly, Juul is everywhere. The slim, Silicon Valley–born devices, which deliver hits of nicotine-infused vapor available in an array of flavors, sparked alarm as their popularity reportedly exploded in high schools across the country. As the media picked up on the trend, articles appeared in small town newspapers and national glossy magazines, decoding “Juuling” for parents and out-of-the-loop adults.

Since entering the market in 2015, Juul has grown to dominate the e-cigarette game, particularly catching on among young people. While teen smoking rates have decreased over the last two decades, e-cigarette use has climbed in recent years. About 3.6 million middle and high schoolers used e-cigarettes in 2018—1.5 million more students than last year, according to numbers released last week by the Food and Drug Administration. Some 10.8 million adults now use e-cigarettes, more than half of whom are under age 35, according to a study released in August. Under pressure to reduce teen interest, Juul Labs unveiled a plan earlier this month that involves shuttering its Instagram and Facebook presence, limiting its Twitter and YouTube content, and working with social media companies to curb user-generated posts, in addition to stopping sales of flavored pods in retail stores. The FDA also unveiled steps last week that aim to reduce youth access to flavored e-cigarettes.

Writing about Juul however, has proven complicated. The prospect of vaping as a healthier alternative for adult smokers has helped it escape the negative media framing that tobacco usually gets. But neither can the media completely ignore the risks of Juul, which spread among teens via social media. It leaves journalists to strike a balance between the trendiness, the health risks, and the potential benefits of Juuling.

Many stories seeking to explain Juul have included descriptions of the devices and the heady feeling it delivers. In an August piece by a local ABC affiliate in Sioux Falls, a 20-year-old described the e-cigs as “awesome”: “That rush of the nicotine really is something that kids feel, like ‘Oh that really gave me the buzz, gave me the feeling like I can do whatever else I wanted to do.’” Other coverage hailed them as trendy. In September, Interview published a spread featuring edgily clad models with vapors pouring from their mouths under the headline, “Fall’s most ubiquitous accessory is a Juul.” (Neither outlet responded to requests for comment.)

A New York Times article in April quoted teenagers praising Juul for its appearance—“the coolest thing ever”—and for making them “feel sober and high at the same time.” Choire Sicha, editor of the Times’s Style section, where the piece appeared, says the article is part of a large body of coverage the paper undertook on Juul, which also included reports on schools struggling with teens’ addiction and Juul’s marketing practices. “Teenagers using Juuls was one of the biggest social changes of the last few years,” he says. And the Times’s coverage documenting how teens are impacted by marketing, online content, and peer pressure is not what made Juul popular among young people, he says.

Jia Tolentino, who wrote about Juuling for The New Yorker in May, tells CJR that one characteristic of the phenomenon was a gap in the information adults and teens received about the devices. While adults were alarmed by news stories about vaping’s risks, teens saw a totally different depiction of Juul on social media. “It’s because kids can effectively broadcast themselves Juuling to each other in perpetuity with no one to get in the way.”

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Tolentino, who tried out Juuling in the course of her reporting, described it in her story as “a white spike of nothing: a pop, a flavored coolness, as if the idea of a cucumber had just vanished inside my mouth.” Tolentino, who spoke with several health experts for her piece, says the experience of Juuling is key to its draw. “Part of the, like, insidious, viral, and truly addictive appeal of the Juul is related to what it is like as an experience.”

While public health experts share the view that social media is the driving force behind young people’s interest in Juul, they see potential risks in how journalists approach Juul. Coverage surely amplifies awareness of the trend, and potentially contributes to the social acceptability of it. But the fact that e-cigarettes may reduce harm for current smokers (a position the American Cancer Society took earlier this year) means that the story can’t be straightforward.

Media coverage of cigarettes has framed them as negative since the 1990s, according to W. Douglas Evans, a professor at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, after a concerted advocacy effort from the National Cancer Institute and Project ASSIST. But coverage of e-cigarettes is often framed as a personal decision to take up the habit, rather than a public health issue. “There’s lots of articles out there that seem to have at least a partially positive or mixed slant, in terms of how positive they are towards the product,” Evans says. As of yet, there has not been a similar governmental effort with regards to vaping.

“This issue is the epitome of something that isn’t black and white,” Cliff Douglas, vice president for tobacco control at the American Cancer Society, says. Nuances of the health implications associated with vaping are sometimes lost in the headlines, he says. And the long-term health risks of using the devices are still unclear. “This is an area that is still so relatively new, and in many ways the media are not helping,” Douglas says.

“This issue is the epitome of something that isn’t black and white.”

Michael Eriksen, dean of the Georgia State University School of Public Health, says media attention to Juuling brings scrutiny to the devices and applies more pressure on lawmakers and regulators, which can spur legal and policy action to try to reduce teen use. Eriksen believes the best approach to covering Juul is to provide the facts, without glamorizing the habit or embellishing the alarm.

Ana Ibarra, a reporter for California Healthline and Kaiser Health News, has tried to maintain that balance. In August, she spoke with 14-year-old Zoei about a new trend: kids using e-cigarettes to consume marijuana. Zoei says she had tried vaping tobacco before, enticed by what Ibarra described as “a sweet strawberry smell.” She also told Ibarra that she’d try vaping pot if she had the chance: “I just want to see what happens.”

Ibarra sees a need for journalists to be “mindful” of the impact enticing descriptions of Juul could have on the public, given the health concerns associated with the devices. But talking to users is critical to help readers understand why e-cigarettes have become so popular, she says. Ultimately, Ibarra tries to capture the nuances, and to portray vaping as neither “too cool” nor “super dangerous.”

ICYMI: What the Times got wrong about kids and phones

Elizabeth Hewitt is a journalist who lives in Brooklyn. She previously reported on Congress and criminal justice for Follow her on Twitter @emhew.