Nicomachean and Nicotine Ethics: Considering the Morality of the JUUL

As anyone who has ever owned/held/looked at a JUUL knows, these sleek pens are some of the most potent fast-friend makers college parties have ever seen. Much like the kid with the pack of gum in middle school, the kid with the JUUL is an instant magnet to any nearby fellow party-goers. Walking around a party, I just need to follow the scent of mint or listen for the hushed whispers before I find the man himself. Smiling confidently with women draped across his arms, this man is THE man. He stands surrounded by a haze of vapor, with every crackle of the pod a sound more welcome than any Killers song, and the gleam from every shaken JUUL better than any disco ball. Around him, poor, sad men with their Mods and Marlboros can only watch from the sidelines as men and women alike pose for that foolproof Snapchat with the most popular man in the room.

Now, while the above account is not an accurate representation of what JUULing is like on campus, it isn’t far from non-fiction. Over the past three years, JUUL sales have increased almost 900 percent, and as any college students in their final years can tell you, the impact is noticeable. If anything, the above account isn’t hyperbolized, it’s just outdated. JUULs aren’t exciting—they’re normal. Walking around a party now, JUULs are just part of it all. They have fit themselves perfectly into college life: Parties would actually be weird without them. From 1976 to 2015, smoking rates among teens fell from almost 30 percent to just 5 percent. But in 2017, about one in 12 students (or 8 percent) reported that they had vaped in the past month. And for many, JUUL is the face of this rapidly rising phenomenon.

JUUL, which recently had thousands of documents seized from its headquarters by the FDA, is facing scrutiny from parents, teachers, and lawyers for its questionable marketing practices that seem geared toward young adults and teens. JUUL is, after all, branded as a means for cigarette smokers to quit cigarettes, yet it is incredibly attractive to many who were previously non-smokers as well, in part owing to its great flavors and incredibly high nicotine content. For many, the legality of explicitly marketing to young teens is the only ethical question that needs to be asked. But for college students, especially those who have taken Perspectives, and adults who make their own decisions, the ethics of nicotine are not that simple. After all, is JUULing that bad for you?

In the face of current medical knowledge, the answer is mixed, simply because of a lack of data. The long-term effects of vaping have yet to be fully researched, so all that can really be said conclusively is that they are a healthier alternative to cigarettes. Nicotine, however, has been shown to have harmful developmental effects on adolescents. The chemical itself is incredibly physically addictive, and much of people’s grief with JUULs revolves around young teens getting addicted to nicotine when they normally wouldn’t have, endangering their development. For us college students—who already live sleep-deprived and overworked, drinking and smoking to excess—a JUUL seems “not that bad.” What, then, is morally wrong with hitting a JUUL? Would our theology professors have anything to say about using refilled pods? Would our philosophy professors even care? As a habitual sugar eater, I sometimes question my predilection for Oreos or doughnuts. On the days when I’m pouring my fifth cup of coffee, I wonder, why is it that just the smell of coffee makes me feel a little better? Is nicotine incomparable to caffeine or sugar?

Of course, our basic BC education grounded in Aristotelian thought would tell us that addiction for addiction’s sake is bad: “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who overcomes his enemies, for the hardest victory is over self,” or so said Aristotle, but he didn’t have BC Bolts, Four Loko, or mint pods in his time. Ideals about addiction won’t stop anyone with a final in an hour, and besides, according to any given media, we college students already addicted to our phones, our internet, our video games, and our social media.

Students drink too fast, sleep too little, party too hard, and speak too much. And while some may see JUULs as the insidious snake in the smoke-free Gen Z gardens, perhaps vapes fit so perfectly into college and young adult life because there was a perfect space for them. In the swirling mass of addictions attributed to college students, what’s one more? Especially one with ambiguous health effects? Is it hard to see why nicotine, which many say increases their alertness while calming them down, is fitting so well into a culture that already abuses caffeine and Adderall (to increase alertness) as well as alcohol (to calm down)? No matter the advertisements, JUUL has found its niche among the pressures and norms of college life, fitting perfectly on any Snapchat story between a laptop and a can of Red Bull. Vaping is here to stay, forcing students to grapple with their own ethics of addiction.

Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Graphics Editor