Juul pods have never been more boring and flavorless. This is thanks to President Donald Trump.
Once available throughout the United States in a cornucopia of varieties including cucumber, mango and crème brulee, under threat of a looming government, Juul pulled all flavors except from mint and tobacco from shelves starting in late 2019.
Ever since, flavor seekers have been forced to suffer through the earthy bitterness of “flue-cured” Virginia tobacco or seek illicit-market options, including buying forbidden Juul pods from “friends” in overseas locations where the flavor pods are still available, like Russia.
But according to a recent study, over the past few years, American Juul users might have found an extra kick in their pods regardless. According to an analysis published in the journal Frontiers in Chemistry in October, some Juul pods also contain trace amounts of an even more popular drug than nicotine. They also contain caffeine.
While some companies market pods that fit Juul devices that contain the extremely popular stimulant—and are advertised as such—Juul does not. According to the company’s website, Juul pods contain only four ingredients: nicotine, and the additives propylene glycol, glycerine, and benzoic acid, which serve as thickeners and preservatives.
This begs a question or two. Where’d the caffeine in Juul pods come from—and what does it do the user?
Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Forensic Science analyzed the contents of 241 nicotine and cannabis vaporizer products found on the market over the past few years. In addition to vaporizer cartridges and e-juice, the researchers also investigated the content of Juul pods.
According to their paper “A Retrospective Analysis of Chemical Constituents in Regulated and Unregulated E-Cigarettes,” they found ten chemicals in Juul pods. These included caffeine, which appeared in concentrations averaging 23.5 micrograms per milliliter in Classic Tobacco pods, and averaging 9.3 μg/ml in Menthol-flavored pod.
Through a spokesman, Juul declined to comment (though it’s worth pointing out that the company no longer sells “Classic Tobacco” pods; “Virginia Tobacco” only, please.)
As per the researchers, caffeine that’s vaporized and then inhaled can be understood as more potent—the process increases caffeine’s bioavailability, meaning more of it is absorbed into the nervous system more easily than with, say, soaking ground coffee beans in extremely hot water and drinking the resultant brew.
As if nicotine weren’t addictive enough, in high enough quantities, added caffeine could also compel the user to crave a Juul pod, according to the researchers.
“The addition of caffeine to e-cig liquids could act as an initiation primer, leading to increased caffeine seeking and consumption and chances of caffeine addiction,” they wrote, noting that “caffeine consumption has been reported to increase the odds of smoking [and] the urge to smoke.”
Did Juul add caffeine to its pods in an attempt to make them more enjoyable, more stimulating, or more addictive? Highly unlikely, according to one expert, if for no other reason than it wouldn’t work.
According to Dr. Neal Benowitz, a researcher and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, the caffeine present is in levels too low for the user to notice.
“For comparison, a cup of coffee contains about 100 milligrams” of caffeine,” Benowitz said. At 25 micrograms per milliliter, “a bout of JUULing would deliver about 1/1000 of the caffeine in a cup of coffee,” he said. “Unlikely to have any significant effects.”
As for how it got there? Probably an accident, according to Benowitz.
“I can see no reason why they would add minute amounts of caffeine,” he added. “Most likely a contaminant in some flavor chemicals they purchased and did not know about.”
Nevertheless, as the Virginia Commonwealth researchers point out, if Juul knew that pods contained caffeine, they didn’t include it on the labels. And the findings come at a tricky time for Juul, which is still waiting to hear from President Joe Biden’s federal government whether its products can be sold in the United States.
The Federal Food and Drug Administration began removing tens of thousands of e-cigarette products from the market in August, about a year after it started evaluating product applications.
However, as a leading Democratic senator recently reminded the FDA, the agency is now more than three months behind ruling on Juul’s “premarket tobacco application.” There’s no clear sign when the agency will rule.
And as the Virginia Commonwealth researchers demonstrated, even Juul itself may not know what’s in store for Juul users the next time they go shopping for a pod.