The students wait eagerly for their teachers to turn their backs.
That’s their cue to reach quietly for a small, sleek device they can easily conceal in their palms. It resembles a flash drive, but instead of computer files, this device stores nicotine.
They take a hit, sucking on the device as they would a cigarette. Then “they blow into their backpacks … or into their sweater when the teacher isn’t looking,” said Elijah Luna, 16, a sophomore at Vista del Lago High School in Folsom, California.
The vapor cloud is so small and dissipates so quickly that teachers are usually none the wiser, said Luna, who added that he’s never tried it himself.
The device is a Juul, a popular electronic cigarette that’s a sensation among U.S. teens, especially in wealthier neighborhoods — and a nightmare for school administrators and public health advocates.
“I think this is going to be the health problem of the decade,” said Milagros Vascones-Gatski, a substance abuse counselor at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia. In nearly 17 years working with teens, she said, she’s never seen a tobacco product become so popular so quickly. Three to four students are caught smoking e-cigarettes on campus each week, usually Juuls, and some are suspended, she said.
Vascones-Gatski, along with other educators and health care experts, fear that the high-nicotine devices are extremely addictive for this vulnerable population.
To combat the spread of the devices, some schools have banned flash drives as well, to avoid any confusion between the items. Yorktown High even removed the main entrance doors from student bathrooms to dissuade students from vaping inside.
Despite these efforts, teens across America continue to use the devices in class, in hallways, in restrooms and at school sporting events.
Because it’s referred to as “Juuling,” not smoking or vaping, some students may think what they’re doing is harmless, said Pamela Ling, a professor at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine. “They may not even know it contains nicotine.”
But it does — and a significant amount. One Juul “pod,” the nicotine cartridge inserted into the smoking device and heated, delivers about 200 puffs, about as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes, according to the product website.
Assuming that a teen smokes one pod a week, “in five weeks, that’s like 100 cigarettes,” Ling said. “By that point, you’re considered an established smoker.”
E-cigarettes, also known as vapes, are battery-operated devices that heat up liquid nicotine to generate an aerosol that users inhale. Smoking e-cigarettes is more discreet and easier to get away with than traditional cigarettes.
Although its manufacturer, Juul Labs, said the device is intended exclusively for adult use, it is appealing to youths because it can be easily charged on a laptop, its decal covers come in colorful designs, and the pods are available in flavors such as mango, mint and crème brûlée.
The odor Juuls produce is subtle and could easily be mistaken for a lotion or body spray.
“It’s stinky and fruity,” Luna’s friend Cody Maratas said of the smell he encounters inside school restrooms when others are Juuling.
In a Reddit forum dedicated to Juuling in schools, some users who identify themselves as students say school restrooms smell much nicer now as a result.
Juul Labs said it wants to help schools get its products off their campuses. Spokeswoman Christine Castro said the company offers a curriculum to educate youths about Juul and nicotine addiction.
“This product is solely for adult smokers,” Castro said.
The company limits online purchases to individuals 21 or older, but Castro conceded that it is harder to control sales on third-party sites like eBay or Craigslist.
Vince Willmore, vice president of communications at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said he applauds efforts by schools but said he thinks the burden shouldn’t fall solely on educators and parents. He thinks the Food and Drug Administration should regulate e-cigarettes.
Last year, the agency delayed regulations that could have yanked many e-cigarette products from the market while it studies whether the devices might actually help longtime smokers wean off traditional cigarettes. “That basically locked in the products that are in the market for another four years,” Willmore said.
Meanwhile, schools continue the battle.
At Needham High School in Massachusetts, Principal Aaron Sicotte said the hype surrounding the Juul might die down, but he doesn’t think vaping will go away.
“I think this is something that will remain in the fabric of adolescence,” he said. “The access is too easy, the draw is too great, and the push through advertising is too significant.”