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Confessions of a Juul Junkie
I’d never considered a future where a pod was out of reach. Moving to Barcelona changed that.
The nicotine is everywhere, and I am assailed on all sides. Hip Catalan separatists in jean cutoffs smoking their rollies, their tobacco laughter echoing up the cracked façades of this narrow Barcelona street and into my open window. The old lady in the apartment across the street from mine hanging up sopping clothes on the strung wires, a cigarette dangling from her lips, her morning routine occasionally interrupted when her body seizes and her rheumy coughs ring out. The construction workers grunting in my building’s hallway, the smoke from their cigarettes creeping under my door and rising in tantalizing curls.
I am biting my fingernails, one eye on the blood forming in my thumb’s crease, the other on the timer on my smartphone. I compulsively bounce my leg as three pieces of nicotine gum congeal into a tumored mass inside my mouth. I focus on my breathing. I recite a mantra. I stare at the laptop’s blank page and try to write.
The timer rings a jolly tune unbefitting of the occasion. Deliverance. I am Pavlov’s dog reaching for the all-too-easy-to-misplace obelisk charging on its all-too-easy-to-misplace USB charger. I raise the Juul to my lips and take in its sweet mango nectar and exhale. Relief comes in lightheaded waves. I congratulate myself for following my protocol of one Juul break per hour — a rarity nowadays, because I work from home and have nothing but my own sense of discipline to hold myself accountable.
But these are desperate times, and conservative measures are necessary. I am one pod away from running out of Juul in Barcelona — a city where everyone, it seems, smokes, and where selling Juul is outlawed because its high nicotine content (59 mg/ml, or 5 percent strength) exceeds limits set by the European Union (20 mg/ml, or 1.7 percent strength).
I am one pod away from running out of Juul in Barcelona — a city where everyone, it seems, smokes, and where selling Juul is outlawed.
When I run out, as I expect I will today or the next day, I will follow with surprising consistency a path I’ve come to know all too well since moving here from San Francisco earlier this year: I will go through withdrawals that make me question whether life was ever good. I will search in pockets and under furniture for forgotten pods. I will chew more nicotine gum. I will suck from an inferior gurgling e-cigarette, the juice staining my clothes and making my room smell of sickly sweet bubblegum, while chewing more nicotine gum. I will add concentrated nicotine formulas to my inferior e-cigarette to approximate the nicotine dosage of a Juul, concocting ghastly brews that will burn my throat and make me ill, while chewing more nicotine gum. But the cause will be futile: Soon enough, I will be back on cigarettes.
I will feel shame as I hide my habit from my wife. I will dream up schemes to evade customs in a bid to ship myself more Juul pods from the United States. I will assess which friends I feel less ashamed to ask to undertake these schemes. Failing that, I will pay premium to order Juuls online, ship them to the warehouse of a shipping service in some remote corner of the United States, and have the shipping service ship them to me — provided they don’t realize I am violating their terms of service, provided Spanish customs doesn’t catch me.
I will wander through the Ramblas, Barcelona’s quintessential tourist trap, stalking American tourists sucking on Juuls, and curse myself for lacking the surreptitious movements of the city’s infamous pickpockets. I will scour Facebook for acquaintances planning to stop by Spain on their European vacations. I will reach out to these acquaintances, telling them I’d love to see them when they’re in town; is there any chance they could do me just a little favor before they head out here? And I will meet up with them, suffering through inane conversations, wondering how long it’s appropriate to wait before asking them, “So, hey, did you, eh, happen to pick up some of those pods before you left?” And when they nod, reach into their backpacks, and pull out the prized bounty, they will become my best friend.
In the summer of 2017, I was living in San Francisco, hard at work eradicating the many vices I’d accumulated over the course of my twenties. Cigarettes remained the lone holdout. Like many addicts in recovery, I justified my use of tobacco as the only thing I had left to get my rocks off, the last sinful pleasure upon which I could concentrate all my craving and desire. That this vice was perhaps worst of them all in terms of long-term health risks was beside the point. Cigarettes sufficed to fill the void without getting me high. That’s what mattered.
I’d periodically encounter Juuls in the hands of friends who swore by them and manifested great anxiety when they misplaced them. I decided to purchase one, figuring it would enable me to consume nicotine in contexts where cigarettes would be inappropriate. But soon enough, I found I preferred the experience of Juuling to tobacco. Within three weeks, I quit smoking cigarettes without even meaning to.
The makers of Juul have hit upon the Goldilocks formula that has long eluded makers of e-cigarettes: It provides more than enough nicotine to satisfy cigarette cravings (or, as some lawsuits allege, too much); it delivers that nicotine smoothly, avoiding the unpleasant harshness found in e-cigarettes of comparable nicotine concentration; yet it still manages to pack the punch cigarette smokers are accustomed to — what insufferable YouTube vaping aficionados call its “throat hit.” Juul’s flavored vapor leaves no lingering odor. Its pod-based delivery system and discreet design appeal to those who disdain vape culture and its appurtenances. It is superior to other e-cigarette products in much the same way that the iPhone was superior to its early smartphone competitors. Small wonder, then, that Juul has cornered the e-cigarette market much like the iPhone cornered the smartphone market, with a 75 percent market share as of this writing.
As I took up Juuling full-time, my friends and family congratulated me on leaving evil tobacco behind and making a healthier choice for myself. My wife, who works in public health, knew better, however, and often reminded me that for all its fanfare as a safer alternative to cigarettes, Juul is causing harm in ways we already know and others we will later discover.
Tobacco use has built-in limits. Juul does not. Over time, I realized I was Juuling far more than I ever smoked.
Beyond Juul’s potential health risks, I began to notice a more insidious psychological cost. Tobacco use — with its division into single cigarettes, plus the inconvenience and social impropriety of smoking indoors and in various public spaces — has built-in limits. Juul does not. Over time, I realized I was Juuling far more than I ever smoked. I Juuled at my desk, in the bathroom, on the phone, at the dinner table, and while laying in bed. I was flooding my system with nicotine and could scarcely go more than a few minutes before the desire to Juul rose from my id and punctuated every third thought. It was the last thing I thought about before I went to bed and the first thing I thought about when I woke up.
The reward nicotine offers its users is paltry in comparison to most drugs—a squirt of dopamine that takes the form of a mild buzz, at best—but it has a remarkable capacity to reinforce that reward. Like providing a dog a treat for obeying your command to sit, nicotine is teaching your brain to associate the action of taking a drag from a cigarette or vaping device with a reward. “The fact that the activity is repeated so often, and in conjunction with so many other activities,” writes Nora Volkow in Scientific American, “ties nicotine’s rewards strongly to many behaviors that we perform on a daily basis, enhancing the pleasure and the motivation that we get from them.”
Because Juul packs more nicotine than most e-cigarettes, and because one can Juul with abandon and yoke it to more daily activities than one can while smoking cigarettes, it is uniquely suited to exploit nicotine’s reward feedback loop.
This is by design. Juul may help you get off of tobacco, but its business model is predicated on keeping you hooked on nicotine — and not just any nicotine, but the specific composition of nicotine and benzoic acid in its patented salt formula that allows the high doses of nicotine to go down smoothly.
“We don’t think a lot about addiction here, because we’re not trying to design a cessation product at all,” Ari Atkins, Juul’s R&D designer, told the Verge in 2015, when Juul first launched. Juul has since grown more media savvy and takes pains to emphasize its role as a smoking-cessation aid for adults, particularly amid the backlash against teen vaping. But make no mistake about it: Keeping you on Juul has always been, and remains, the game plan.
I paid my excessive consumption of Juul little mind at the time, because I didn’t need to. In San Francisco, Juul was everywhere, and reupping was easy. The illusion of an infinite supply, the root of so many destructive human behaviors, meant that I never had to consider a future when a Juul pod was out of reach.
Moving to Barcelona changed that. I brought a small stash of pods with me and figured once my supply dwindled, that would be that. I saw Juul as a means to a cigarette- and nicotine-free life. Once I ran out, I imagined I’d transcend addiction for good and assume a Buddha-like existence as an enlightened being free from suffering.
Instead, I became a hungry ghost.
Gabor Maté, MD, a Canadian physician specializing in addiction, uses the metaphor of the hungry ghost to describe the experience of addiction. In Buddhist cosmology, the realm of hungry ghosts is one of six realms, or ways of being. Hungry ghosts are “creatures with scrawny necks, small mouths, emaciated limbs, and large, bloated, empty bellies.” They are perennially in thrall to an itch they can’t ever quite scratch. As Maté puts it:
This is the domain of addiction, where we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment. The aching emptiness is perpetual because the substances, objects, or pursuits we hope will soothe it are not what we really need. We don’t know what we need, and so long as we stay in the hungry ghost mode, we’ll never know. We haunt our lives without being fully present.
The realm of hungry ghosts is a place I know well. I spent most of my twenties there. I thought I left it behind when I embraced sobriety. My Juul addiction cast me back in.
Because Juul doesn’t intoxicate me, I appear fine on the surface. But internally, I am suffering through the moment-to-moment unfolding of my days, fixating on that next drag. And as the supplies dwindle to zero, the looming threat of Juul’s deprivation, and its eventual absence, turns me into somebody I don’t recognize. I am a Juul junkie, a ghost with a hunger I can’t ever satisfy.
Keeping you on Juul has always been, and remains, the game plan.
I’ve tried to wean myself off it bit by bit. I’ve tried to go cold turkey. I’ve thrown all my spiritual practices at it. I’ve meditated, done yoga, even taken a strong dose of LSD with the sole intention of severing my attachment. But they’ve been no match. For all the parts of me that want to rid Juul from my life, a cancer of an altogether different form from the ones I tell myself I am avoiding through my “healthier choice” has metastasized within me. And it’s winning.
You might say: So what? Surely there are worse vices to have. Surely it’s better than the alternative of tobacco. I express similar sentiments in my more defensive moments when my wife confronts me about my habit.
To be sure, a world in which fewer people are smoking cigarettes is a better world. It’s the number one cause of preventable death globally, accounting for 480,000 deaths a year. But if cigarettes are simply replaced with Juul, there are costs that must be acknowledged.
So many of the world’s ills can be traced to the desperate search to fill that void of yearning that Maté speaks of—be it through money, drugs, power, or control. To teach one’s mind to constantly need something even as relatively harmless as nicotine simply perpetuates the cycle.
The biggest risk of the so-called Juul epidemic in teenagers is not that they are getting hooked on nicotine. It’s that millions of young people are teaching their brains to seek more at a moment in history where we all need to seek less. Like Juul’s potential health risks, we do not yet know the long-term consequences of this behavior. But I fear them.
In a bid to combat teenage vaping, which has increased 75 percent in the past year, Juul recently pulled all its sweet flavors from retailers’ shelves in the United States. It was preemptive move in anticipation of the FDA’s ban on flavored e-cigarettes at gas stations and convenience stores. Without easy access to Juul, teenagers across the country will soon experience a dilemma similar to my own: Undergo the nightmare of Juul withdrawal or find some other means to get your fix. I hope my example of ultimately turning to cigarettes in Juul’s absence is an isolated case and not a harbinger of things to come.
I’ve recently taken to reading William S. Burroughs’ books. A heroin addict for much of his life, he speaks in Queer (1951) of his motivation for writing. “I live with the constant threat of possession, from Control,” he writes. He is bound in a “lifelong struggle” with the “Ugly Spirit” that has possessed him, one in which he has “no choice except to write [his] way out.”
As I sit here, waiting for the next timer to ring so I can suck from the dying vapors of my Juul, it occurs to me that I am attempting something similar. With all my other methods exhausted, with the predictable cycles of addiction and withdrawal awaiting me after this last pod runs dry, I am trying to wrench myself free of Juul’s hold by writing my way out, hoping that this is the path that leads me out of the realm of hungry ghosts.
Failing that, there are always New Year’s resolutions.