In American Vandal season 2, a pack of students from St. Bernardine High recite the rules for “The Great American Challenge,” a debaucherous teen marathon of consumption. One daring team of students must consume an entire case of beer, a large pizza, a handle of vodka, and then smoke a full JUUL pod, before completing a 500-piece custom-made puzzle of student Andrew Lemgarten’s mom. That the JUUL is nestled in this drinking game to-do list — on a show that parodies teen life — suggests that the e-cigarette is the latest official signage for “modern teens.” JUULing has wormed its way into internet culture; the next obvious frontier is television.
The kids are JUULing, according to the New York Times, my Instagram feed, and one sleepy interview with Suki Waterhouse. Lil Xan (who derived his name from the drug Xanax) took his JUUL on the MTV Video Music Awards red carpet, and two members of the boy band Why Don’t We recently popped up on Instagram stories with JUUL pods in their hands. Hell, Cazzie David, the irascible daughter of Larry David, recently wrote a comedic guide to quitting “the JUUL.”
In the current slate of TV, JUULing appears in American Vandal and the upcoming fourth season of The Magicians. The e-cigarette, the JUUL's dorky cousin, materialized on season 2 of Big Mouth in the hands of Jessi's father and in a sleek trailer for Elite. Lifetime's glossy new show You features a snazzy vape pen. E-cigarettes are taking on TV, with the JUUL in the foreground. The JUUL, a slim, USB-looking e-cigarette, has a specific connotation these days, thanks in large part to the internet. The tool has a sort of candylike appeal that belies its potential danger; it’s still a clean path to nicotine addiction, which itself isn’t a solution to the issues that accompany smoking.
“I noticed that JUULing had become a bit of trend, so I put it in the script.” -Sera Gamble
But that’s partially why JUUL enjoys a cult appeal. A JUUL conveys that you’re cool enough to want to smoke, but you’re smart enough — or you think you’re smart enough — to abstain from cigarettes. Instead, you can indulge in the candy-flavored fog from a JUUL pod. The pods, by the way, cost at least $20 a pop. At the newsstand nearest to the New York Refinery29 office, a starter kit costs $60, a device costs $45, and a pod $23. (Meanwhile, a pack of cigarettes in Manhattan costs roughly $18.) One teen told The Cut that certain “status” flavours were sold for as much as $26 a pod. If a TV show wants to evoke a specific subset of modern teenhood, they may want to use a JUUL pod.
For The Magicians, showrunner Sera Gamble used the JUUL to illustrate the absurdity of one of her characters: Penny (Arjun Gupta). In this season, Penny has switched identities (all the characters have) and assumed the role of an ultra cool DJ. This (fictional) DJ has collaborated with the likes of Taylor Swift, Gamble tells Refinery29, and he cares a lot about his image.
“I noticed that JUULing had become a bit of trend,” Gamble says. “So we just put it in the script.”
After she wrote the JUUL into the script, Gamble says the production team checked with her to make sure she’d actually meant “JUUL.” “The interesting thing is, when something that is [a] brand becomes popular, there's always a lot of back and forth around that on TV,” Gamble says. “Even just mentioning a brand by name is a conversation with several departments because there [are] legalities around it.”
In You, Lifetime’s adaptation of Caroline Kepnes’s novel of the same name, Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci) carries a small vape (a device that's not a JUUL, but could have been) something Gamble — who also created You — thought was integral to the character. “There's something about a vape pen that is so current that you feel like you want to put that in the character who cares the most about what's current,” Gamble said. The JUUL as a character accessory is a telling sign, the 2018 version of Elle Woods’ dog Bruiser in Legally Blonde or Brad Pitt’s omnipresent snacks in Ocean’s 11.
Gamble doesn’t JUUL, but she says she has friends who do. “I've never held an actual JUUL,” Gamble jokes, “So if JUUL wants to send some to the writer's room, great.”
For the record, JUUL hasn’t been actively pursuing product placement — although, when pressed for comment, a spokesperson for the company didn’t say it hadn’t participated in product placement.
“We do not proactively engage in product placements on television programs. If a program reaches out to us, we review the request to determine if it is appropriate before granting approval,” the spokesperson said. “In most cases, however, and especially in [American Vandal], the placement has not been approved or authorized by the company. With regards to American Vandal, the product used was not a JUUL device.” (Representatives for the show did not respond to Refinery29’s request for comment.)
Television has a contentious history with smoking — networks today rarely allow cigarettes on screen. It’s helpful that in 1998, tobacco companies entered into an agreement (the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement), which dictated that tobacco companies couldn’t employ product placement in entertainment for kids. That doesn’t mean tobacco doesn’t show up in film. Smokefree Movies, an initiative operated by University of California San Francisco’s Centre for Tobacco Control Research and Education, keeps an active list of movies in theatres that feature smoking. As of October 12, three of the top movies in U.S. theatres featured smoking. (Venom, A Star is Born, and The Predator, all of which carry titles that could be a metaphor for what smoking can do.) While Smokefree Movies focuses on smoking, the organization is also concerned with e-cigarettes.
“Hollywood has been at this rodeo before. It has a long, documented history of collaborating with Big Tobacco’s cross-promotions, sponsorships, and product placement and doesn’t need to repeat past mistakes,” a spokesperson for Smokefree Movies wrote in an email. “Mainlining nicotine is not the answer to smoking. If it were, Philip Morris would have stopped making Marlboros by now.”
In 2012, the CDC released a report that said, essentially, yes, cigarettes in movies have an immense effect on youth. In the CDC’s words: “The Surgeon General has concluded that there is a causal relationship between depictions of smoking in movies and smoking initiation among young people.”
By the transitive property, JUULing in movies would make teens especially vulnerable to JUULing.
“In New York City, it's actually 17.3% of students who have reported using e-cigarettes, and that's three times as common as current cigarette use,” says Kim Kessler, an assistant health commissioner for New York’s Department of Mental Health and Hygiene. “We know from the history of cigarette smoking and the use of media to promote cigarette smoking that it can certainly impact and influence youth behavior. And, what we've seen with the e-cigarette industry is a tremendous amount of ability to exploit youth interest in themes like rebellion and cool factor and sex appeal to interest teens in vaping.” Kessler adds that social media specifically is one area where inadvertent JUUL advertising thrives.
This has been heavily documented: JUUL is an Instagram favourite, appearing mostly in memes, which are their own form of shareable advertising. And the government is increasingly concerned about JUULing. The FDA recently announced that it “won’t tolerate” the widespread addiction of teens to nicotine, announcing a plan to force the five major e-cigarette companies (JUUL, Vuse, MarkTen, blu, and Logic) to demonstrate how they are distinctly not targeting minors.
Overwhelmingly, though, teens are JUULing, and doing so in manner that feels imminently mockable, probably because they are listed on the JUUL site as a "smoking alternative." At $15 a pop, the JUUL is the toy of the upper middle class, more akin to an addiction-fueled fidget spinner than a threatening cancer stick, at least to the people who use it. It says a lot about the characters who carry it — consider the JUUL the 2018 version of Kyle’s (Timothée Chalamet) hand-rolled cigarettes in Lady Bird. On The Magicians, DJ Hansel is a proto-douchebag, a cool kid who likely has a collection of scarves, all of which smell like cucumber JUUL smoke. Benji on You is an image-obsessed trust fund kid. The students of American Vandal’s St. Bernadine are a parody of private school baddies. Elite is Gossip Girl, but with murder and some more astute criticism of the upper class.
More than likely, the JUUL will fade in popularity in TV shows much like fidget spinners did or escape room-set episodes will. Then, like carbon footprinting, we'll be able to determine the distinct era of a property because it featured a little USB port sending out cucumber fog. What does it say about 2018 pop culture that our jokes revolve around a literally addictive piece of technology? One that, by the way, tastes like candy? It's as if our addiction to bingeable television is finally converging with another, more lethal addiction (nicotine). If the JUUL makes its way officially onto the screen, popping up in, say, HBO's teen-driven Euphoria next year or the new season of Broad City, then our fate might just be sealed: We're all idiots, sucking on Judas-flavored fog that absolutely isn’t a solution.