Home The War on Sugar What Vaping Can Teach You About Sugar

What Vaping Can Teach You About Sugar

by Erika Nicole Kendall

People love to dismiss the addictive nature of sugar. “Oh, petting puppies can be addictive too! Self- control!” or some such other nonsense.

Hold that thought.

I remember when vaping was originally introduced as a method to help people reduce their exposure to cigarettes, possibly even helping them quit altogether.

The initial hope was that e-cigarettes would lessen exposure to and eliminate the amount of cancer-causing agents that people inhale. And, anything that reduces the number of lung cancer cases in America is a good thing, right?

From Forbes, circa April 2016:

In 1962, two years before U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry released his famous report on the health hazards of smoking, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) covered the same subject in a report that went further than Terry’s, linking cigarettes to cardiovascular disease as well as lung cancer and chronic bronchitis. Today the RCP issued another landmark report that should inspire imitation in the United States, endorsing e-cigarettes as a harm-reducing alternative to the combustible, tobacco-containing kind.

“Large-scale substitution of e-cigarettes, or other non-tobacco nicotine products, for tobacco smoking has the potential to prevent almost all the harm from smoking in society,” the RCP says. “Promoting e-cigarettes…and other non-tobacco nicotine products as widely as possible, as a substitute for smoking, is therefore likely to generate significant health gains in the UK.”


I could go on and on and on with linking article after article— but I wont.

Just know that I could.

For a while, I was happy to see so many people embracing e-cigarettes. I mean, I used to smoke, so I get it. It’s a hard thing to quit. I get the urge to smoke again quarterly. So if something helps, hell, let it.

But one night in particular, I was out with friends and one of them leaned over, stood up, and then blew out this crazy cloud of smoke, hoping that standing would prevent the smoke from blowing in our faces. I, having never been out with anyone who vaped, had no idea it did that.

“What the hell is that? And what the hell is that smell?”

He laughed, and told me it was “fruity pebbles,” but I already knew. That smell was unmistakable.

It tied into something I read in a New Yorker essay a while back, about how teens were taking up the habit of vaping, believing that it was okay because “at least we arent smoking.”

But e-cigarettes are definitively safer than cigarettes, aren’t they? There are typically around six hundred ingredients in cigarettes. Juul’s e-cigarette liquid contains only five: glycerol, propylene glycol, nicotine, benzoic acid, and food-grade flavoring. Glycerol is a sweet liquid that has been used in antifreeze, giving rise to the urban legend that e-cigarettes contain antifreeze. But it is also used in toothpaste. Propylene glycol is used in asthma nebulizers. Benzoic acid is a common food preservative.

“If you compare the Juul to a thing that kills one out of every two users, of course it’s safer,” Winickoff said.

The New Yorker

But it was another part of the story that felt like a red alarm to me.

Juul is caught in a very particular dilemma: the more appealing the product is for smokers, the more appealing it’s likely to be for everyone else, including teen-agers. At a Manhattan location of Beyond Vape, in March, a sweet-natured clerk named Christ told me that he had smoked two packs a day since he was a teen-ager and that vapes had saved his life. He showed me a vast array of liquids, and explained the appeal of various flavors for people trying to quit cigarettes. (His favorite: Phillip Rocke Honey Cream.) But Juul is frequently condemned for targeting young people with its sweeter flavors, which are limited to mango, crème brûlée, mixed fruit, and cucumber. The company has refrained from introducing new flavors—though it has prototyped “tons” of them, [Juul founder] Adam Bowen said.

Many Juulers I talked to found themselves taking in more nicotine with Juul than they had with cigarettes—going through a pod a day, say, when they were never pack-a-day smokers. 

The New Yorker

Juul, a popular brand of e-cigarettes, apparently has “sweet” flavors? It contains sugar?

Where have I heard that before?

As for tobacco, sugar was, and still is, a critical ingredient in the American blended-tobacco cigarette, the first of which was Camel, introduced by R. J. Reynolds in 1913. It’s this “marriage of tobacco and sugar,” as a sugar-industry report described it in 1950, that makes for the “mild” experience of smoking cigarettes as compared with cigars and, perhaps more important, makes it possible for most of us to inhale cigarette smoke and draw it deep into our lungs. It’s the “inhalability” of American blended cigarettes that made them so powerfully addictive—as well as so potently carcinogenic—and that drove the explosion in cigarette smoking in the United States and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, and the rest of the world shortly thereafter, and, of course, the lung-cancer epidemics that have accompanied it.

Taubes, Gary. The Case Against Sugar. Loc. 605

Considering everything I’ve shared here thus far, the following shouldn’t surprise you one bit!

Tobacco giant Altria invested $12.8 billion in Juul, taking a 35 percent stake in the e-cigarette maker that valued it at $38 billion as they begin to embark on a new path that relies less on traditional cigarettes.


“We are taking significant action to prepare for a future where adult smokers overwhelmingly choose non-combustible products over cigarettes by investing $12.8 billion in Juul, a world leader in switching adult smokers,” Altria CEO Howard Willard said in a statement.


In all this, there are lessons to be learned:

1) This highlights the connection between addiction and profit. And excessive sugar is a part of how they’re doing it. There is historical precedence.

The goal is to create the addiction, and pretend it’s a stand-in for “brand loyalty.” It also ensures you’ll go through the product even quicker, and buy replacements more frequently.

2) If you smoke, if you vape, you are freebasing sugar. The point is to get it into your bloodstream as quickly as possible, with the intention for the corporation to profit off of the attachment that you—the consumer—develop from such an easily-accessible, reliable, consistent, affordable, and legally-obtained source of mood-enhancement.

It’s one thing for the average cigarette to contain sugar; it’s another thing entirely for the smoked thing to be sweetened and flavored to taste like things people already struggle with consuming healthily. Creme brûlée? Bruh.

3) Back to this “puppy” thing. Yes, petting puppies releases dopamine, a mood-enhancing chemical that occurs naturally in your brain. You release it in response to everything you like. And, to be clear, virtually everything has the capacity to produce dopamine, from shopping to sax to driving a sexy car and revving the engine to getting your hair “did.”

Discussing dopamine in the context of addiction matters because things that are not rewarding—as in, things that dont produce dopamine—in some way simply do not have the ability to be addictive. Addiction requires dopamine. The dopamine reaction—the confirmation that “this is good, feels good, do it again”— is what people are looking for.

But addiction also requires consistent, regular access to the source; usually in a concentrated form, with a predictable and routine way of getting in and the capacity to do harm. The harm part is important-the inability to recognize that a behavior causes harm, the inability to stop after recognizing the harm caused, those are the characteristics of addiction. It’s not just the substance that determines whether or not we’re talking about an addiction; it’s the behavior. And we’re looking at a Corporation using sugar to create the capacity for addictive behaviors.

So yes, puppies and other random things can bring good feelings. They should! (If nothing felt good, we’d have another name for that: among others, depression.) But the only way petting puppies is a reasonable comparison to sugar—or heroin, for that matter—is if someone found a way to distill puppy petting into a liquid, turn that liquid into a concentrate, and then found a thousand ways to profit off of getting people hooked on consuming it.

Through looking at vaping, we see that the history of what makes tobacco profitable is repeated in order to create the same kind of unhealthy attachment we find in tobacco and cigarettes… the same kind of unhealthy attachment that people develop with processed food. The connection for all three, the substance used to create our maintain that attachment… is sugar.

Maybe it’s not as simple as “petting puppies” after all.

Photo credit: Flickr / Vaping360

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