Meredith Berkman and her husband were shocked when their ninth-grade son, Caleb, told them he wanted to chat after a school day on April 3, 2017. “As a mother of teenagers, you never, ever hear that,” Berkman laughs. “So we were all ears.”
Caleb explained to them that his school had brought in a speaker for a drug-prevention presentation about Juul, “and it was really confusing.” When the teachers and administrators left the room — which is apparently standard procedure during such presentations to encourage honest participation from the students — the speaker allegedly emphasized that while Juuling should be reserved for adults, it was also “totally safe” and would receive FDA approval any minute now.
Disconcerted and skeptical of this notion that Juuling was indeed safe, Caleb and one of his close friends approached the speaker with some questions after the presentation, where Berkman explains, “The man took out his Juul, showed the boys how it worked and referred to it as the ‘iPhone of vapes.’”
Berkman was horrified at the thought of such a bogus presentation undermining the real dangers of Juuling and launched an investigation into where this presenter actually came from. She called the group who recruited the speaker and discovered that they had found him through what was then known as the Youth Prevention Coordinator for Juul. “Long story short, it turned out, based on our quick investigation, that this was a Juul representative taken into the school,” Berkman explains.
Infuriated that Juul was sending representatives to discuss and seemingly advertise their product at high schools — a phenomenon that saw Berkman and her son eventually testifying before Congress — Berkman and fellow moms Dina Alessi and Dorian Fuhrman began speaking with experts on the subject. They quickly formed Parents Against Vaping, a grassroots organization that was initially just a website meant to provide parents with information about the vaping epidemic. But now, she says, “This has become our lives. We realized just the extent of the predatory behavior.”
The following summer, Parents Against Vaping continued their investigation into this strange high school speaker. As this New York Times article reveals about their findings, “Other schools across the country were offered $10,000 from the e-cigarette company for the right to talk to students in classrooms or after school.”
Since then, Parents Against Vaping has grown from an educational website into what could be described as the foot soldiers against Big Vape, speaking in schools against e-cigarettes and providing affected parents with resources to help their children either stay away from vaping or quit altogether. “At the core of our advocacy is pushing for the flavor bans, because the research has proven that, in fact, it is the flavors that hook the kids and to a large extent continue to keep young people from perceiving harm, from perceiving nicotine,” says Berkman. “We’re not prohibitionists — we’re not looking to remove the tobacco flavor. We’re just focused on the kids and the flavors.”
Recently, after much public backlash, Juul announced that they would voluntarily stop selling their mint-flavored pods — one of the most popular flavors among teens; however, Berkman and her colleagues hope that menthol, another favorite, will be taken off the market soon, too. Some weeks prior, Juul also announced that they stopped selling most of their flavors, but again, Berkman is skeptical — and she’s not the only one. “The tobacco industry has a long history of making loud, public pronouncements and then failing to follow through,” Paul Billings, the senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association, told NPR regarding the same announcement.
The other big misconception Parents Against Vaping is working to dispel is that vaping is somehow safer than smoking cigarettes, an idea that has little scientific basis. “We will not allow our kids to be human guinea pigs for the flavored e-cigarette and Juul experiment,” Berkman emphasizes.
This overall lack of science can be at least somewhat attributed to the FDA turning what seems to be a blind eye to vaping regulations, a phenomenon I wrote about several months ago:
“Generally speaking, the FDA is supposed to regulate new tobacco products before they can be sold in stores. In 2016, it was decided that e-cigarettes should also undergo this same review process. However, for some reason, e-cigarettes have largely been able to avoid any of this oversight. Such a lack of scrutiny by the FDA is something [San Francisco] City Attorney Dennis Herrera adamantly pointed out during Tuesday’s press conference. ‘The FDA has simply failed to do its job in unprecedented fashion,’ he exclaimed.”
Speaking of a lack of regulations, counterfeit Juul pods have been blamed for many of the health problems that vaping seems to cause — especially after Juul pulled some of its own flavors from the shelves — giving vapers who buy the legit ones a false notion of security. But both Berkman and a recent lawsuit detailing the sale of contaminated Juul pods are of the opinion that the lack of FDA regulations means real pods are just as dangerous. “Without the FDA doing its job of regulating these devices fully, currently five million young people have been sucking very deep into their lungs all of these known and unknown toxins,” she says. “Plus, there are degraded metals coming from the devices that are used 24/7 by these kids.”
“We hear from parents all across the country, every single day, whose lives have been upended by their kid’s addiction, their Juul dependence,” Berkman continues, adding that parents in need can sign up for their Parent Toolkit, which has educational information on addressing Juuling and talking with your children about its dangers.
While it might seem that Berkman and her colleagues have an insurmountable task in front of them, she seems confident that the public is wising up to the issue. “People finally understand that this is a major, major problem,” she says. “This youth vaping epidemic is the most serious adolescent health crisis that our country has faced in decades.”
But she’s also aware that this is a long-term battle — one that began decades ago. “The reality is just Big Tobacco,” Berkman confirms. “It’s like the Loch Ness monster went down into the murky depths where it belongs, was quiet for a while, then came back up looking high-tech and chic, but it was the same monster. Their objective is still to addict our kids and make billions of dollars.”
On the bright side for Berkman, Juul sales are actually slowing as a result of all the negative publicity that she and her team have worked so hard to spotlight. In fact, according to a recent report, Juul has lost more than a third of its value. So I guess you could say that at least some of Big Vapes’ attempts at reinvigorating the tobacco industry are going up in, well, vapor.