We Fought JUUL for What They Did to Our Kids

In September 2017, we did not yet know each other; our sons were just entering 9th grade together at the same new school. We each had given up successful careers years earlier to raise our kids, seven between the two of us, today aged 12 to 23.

We met casually at a school event, staying in touch since our boys were becoming friends. We did not know then that, just a few months later, in April 2018, our lives would change in ways we could not have imagined.

On that fateful day, Meredith's then-16-year-old son Caleb came home and told his parents that he was troubled by a school anti-addiction assembly held for the ninth grade.

After teachers left the room, typical for such presentations so kids will speak freely, a speaker began telling the students about a new flashy, flavored e-cigarette that many were already using and almost all had seen advertised on teen-targeted social media.

It was called JUUL.

Meredith Berkman and Dorian Fuhrman
Meredith Berkman (L) pictured with Dorian Fuhrman (R). [Stock image] A vaping young man. Meredith Berkman, Dorian Fuhrman/Getty Images, master1305

According to Caleb, and confirmed by Dorian's then 14-year-old son Phillip, this supposed educator informed the teens that JUUL was intended for adults, not for them.

But he followed up these statements by repeatedly assuring the kids that JUUL was "totally safe." After the talk, when Caleb and Phillip approached the speaker to ask more questions, the man took out his JUUL, showed them how it worked, and called it the "iPhone of vapes."

Within 24 hours, by doing a little digging along with our mutual friend Dina Alessi, whose 9th-grade son Luke had also attended the talk, we discovered that the speaker was, in fact, a JUUL representative brought in by an outside group—and the school had no idea.

In the days and weeks that followed, often late at night when our kids were asleep, we began researching this wildly successful Silicon Valley-based brand. We were shocked not only by the company's predatory marketing behavior but by the scope of the problem.

Five years prior, vaping and e-cigarettes were barely on our radars. Sure, we all knew about the dangers of smoking, having grown up in the '80s. We remembered how prevalent smoking was; we saw it on TV and smelled it in restaurants and at sporting events.

Some of us had family members or family friends who died from smoking-related lung cancer or suffered from cigarette-caused COPD. But that was then, and this was now.

High-school smoking rates were in the single digits, the lowest they had been for years. We had taught our kids from a very young age never to smoke or use tobacco. And they would not have until JUUL came along,

Stealth-by-design, with cartridges resembling phone chargers, JUUL had patented a nicotine salt technology that could deliver enormous amounts of highly addictive nicotine–far more than in traditional cigarettes. Using fruit-and-candy flavors and young-looking influencers and celebrities to promote its tech-chic device, the two Stanford graduate students who'd created this game-changing electronic nicotine delivery system were successfully convincing millions of kids around the country that JUUL was cool.

But what could we do? Desperately seeking the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) of vaping, we soon discovered that no such group existed. (It would be many months before the US Surgeon General, Health and Human Services Secretary, and FDA Commissioner even referred to the "youth vaping epidemic").

Forced to create the group we might have preferred to join, we three co-founded Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes (PAVe) (soon joined by another mom, Miriam Boublik), becoming accidental public health activists and advocates.

When we launched a simple website on the first day of school in September 2018, emails from parents around the country looking for resources began pouring in. To say we were shocked would be an understatement.

We began meeting with pediatricians, addiction psychiatrists, and researchers to understand what was known so far about the health implications associated with vaping. We learned that the nicotine content in one JUUL cartridge is the equivalent of one or more packs of cigarettes and that flavored vaping products were particularly addictive for kids and harmful to their developing brains and lungs.

Before we knew it, we were leading the first and only national parent organization defending youth not only from JUUL but from the vaping companies that followed its example and the tobacco industry, which began buying up e-cigarette companies, as well as launching their own e-cigarette brands.

We brought our sons with us to Capitol Hill to speak with lawmakers and FDA leadership, sharing our story with them. We wanted JUUL held accountable for targeting minors.

Our relentless outreach resulted in a July 2019 two-day Congressional hearing about JUUL led by Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), who was then chair of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Economics and Consumer Policy.

We, along with our sons, were invited to testify, along with public health experts, prompting the FDA to warn JUUL about going after kids. We are proud that our testimony and the hearing exposed JUUL's pattern of disingenuous and deceptive behavior (that also included funding summer camps), costing JUUL billions of dollars in lost profits and legal settlements with multiple states, thousands of school districts, and millions of individuals, many of them teens who became severely addicted to nicotine and suffered serious health issues.

Later that fall, PAVe was invited to the White House to participate in a raucous "Vaping Summit" hosted by then-President Donald Trump, attended by the industry and public health partners.

But our work had just begun. Any e-cigarette sold after 2016 was technically subject to FDA review before it could be sold, but the FDA's many years of delay have allowed these products to proliferate without full regulation.

In addition, a lack of enforcement–complicated by COVID–has allowed minors easy access, making the problem even worse, addicting millions of kids.

We continue working alongside lawmakers at the local, state, and federal levels, encouraging our parent volunteers across the country to join us in advocating for an end to sales of all flavored e-cigarettes (and all other flavored tobacco products), including the new unregulated and illegal Chinese disposable brands (like Elf Bar) that are pouring into our country and are being used by minors.

What moves us the most are the parents we continue hearing from every day who desperately seek education, resources, and support and whose families' lives have been upended by the youth vaping crisis.

We continue hearing reports of EVALI (E-cigarette- or Vaping-use-Associated Lung Injury), first reported in late summer 2019 when a majority of cases were linked to Vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent used in THC.

However, more than 12 percent of those initial cases came from nicotine vapes, and there have reportedly been more than 31,000 new cases over the last year. Other parents reach out because their teens who are vaping experience addiction and mood disorders, severe asthma, and seizures.

We urge parents to learn the signs of nicotine addiction and talk to their kids early and often about vaping. Today, more than 2.5 million children regularly vape, according to CDC data: 1 out of 5 high school students and 1 out of 10 middle school students, many of them now doing so at school.

It is also no accident that companies such as "HighLight Vape" are marketing disposable e-cigarettes that could pass for brand-new rainbow markers or other innocuous objects that can be easily hidden in plain sight.

As we approach our fifth anniversary, we can't believe where this unexpected journey has taken us. We talk ten times a day, and although we sometimes ask each other, "How did we get into this mess?" we feel incredibly grateful that we did.

Meredith Berkman and Dorian Fuhrman are co-founders of Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes and public health advocates.

All views expressed in this article are the authors' own.

Do you have a unique experience or personal story to share? Email the My Turn team at myturn@newsweek.com.

Correction, 9/14/23, 9:20 a.m ET: The headline was corrected to reflect that the authors did not sue JUUL.

Uncommon Knowledge

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

About the writer

Meredith Berkman AND Dorian Fuhrman

Meredith Berkman & Dorian Fuhrman are co-founders of Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes and public health advocates.

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