An e-cigarette that looks like a pocket-sized computer device is alarming health officials because of its potency and popularity among teenagers.
But area school officials say so far they haven't found the vaping pod known as Juul in their facilities.
"We're familiar that they're out there," said Tim Rohweder, principal at Proctor High School. "I haven't seen one or confiscated one here at our school. I know that they're around."
Juul is among one of the newer developments in vaping, which advocates tout as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes and a good way to quit the habit.
"People do like it because it mimics a real cigarette," said Mike Waz, who sells Juuls at his smoke shops on Mountain Shadow Drive and on Grand Avenue and also uses them. "You don't get the huge vapor clouds. You do get your nicotine."
Waz, who has been in business for 20 years, said vaping is about 30 percent of his business, and Juuls are second in that category to vape mods, which give off more vapor. He has had Juuls in stock for about three months, he said.
Juuls are less carcinogenic than combustible cigarettes, Waz contended. It's healthier, he said, if not healthy. And at least in his case, it is accomplishing its purpose. "In general, the Juul has greatly reduced my cigarette intake."
The Juul website touts the device as an alternative to cigarette smoking that provides the same amount of nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. It claims to use materials that "reduce or minimize risk to consumers."
But health experts aren't having that.
"Are they healthy? No. Are they safe? No," said Alicia Randall, a St. Louis County public health educator. "No amount of nicotine is OK for youth."
The nicotine in a Juul e-cig is "almost equal" to that of a combustible cigarette, said Pat McKone of the American Lung Association in Duluth.
"You don't realize the hit of nicotine that they're getting," she said. "This is a nicotine delivery system. I think we need to raise the awareness that these devices are out there and educate teachers and students that they are not harmless."
Juul's website says it doesn't want its product in the hands of youth. Waz agrees. He acknowledged his West Duluth store once got caught selling to minors, but he said he now trains all of his employees to be very strict in checking IDs.
"We do not want our young children to start on these products," Waz said. "Our stuff is available for people that already smoke and they want a healthier alternative or a stop-smoking tool."
But youth are using the products, McKone said.
"This has really become a phenomenon among young people," she said. "There's new lingo around. They're not calling it vaping, they're calling it Juuling. There's actual clothing that's designed to hide these devices. ... They're hard to detect because they're engineered to look like a jump drive."
Waz said the Juuls in his stores come in mango, cool mint, cool cucumber, fruit medley and creme brulee flavors. But those flavors aren't necessarily designed to lure kids, he said, adding that he likes the mango flavor himself.
"I agree that some of the companies might have used some of their marketing (of) flavors to target young people," Waz said. "But I'm not in the boardroom. And I had nothing to do with that."
The flavors are a problem in the view of Jay Belcastro, Two Harbors High School principal.
"It is concerning to me how creative the industry has become with the flavored products," he said. "They look like, smell like, even taste like suckers."
Juuls don't appear to be widely available in the Twin Ports. Checks with SuperAmerica and Kwik Trip stores didn't turn up the product. An employee who answered the phone at LiQuiVape in Superior said they don't sell Juuls.
Brian Annis, owner of Lake Effect Vapor stores in Duluth, said there's certainly demand for Juul, but he won't sell it.
Juul has much higher nicotine content than the e-cigarettes he sells, Annis said.
"Really, the device has a lot of issues," he said. "The pods are leaky, the liquid in my opinion is not that great. There's been a lot of stories about kids getting their hands on them."
The Duluth News Tribune did find Juul at the Holiday Station store in West Duluth. It was displayed on the store's counter in a plexiglass container, above packages of candy. Holiday administrative offices in Bloomington, Minn., didn't respond to an inquiry about the decision to sell the product.
They aren't cheap. The Juul website lists "device kits" starting at $34.99 and "Juul pods" starting at $15.99.
In addition to Proctor High School, officials at Hermantown High School, Two Harbors High School, Cloquet High School and Harbor City International School all said they hadn't encountered Juul in their schools.
"Not in particular that version, but we are seeing a definite increase in the amount of students who are vaping," said John Muenich, Hermantown's principal.
Officials at Denfeld and East high schools didn't respond to questions about Juul.
Belcastro said he had brought up Juul at a staff meeting just the week before. "In a school setting it certainly is concerning, because a lot of kids will carry jump drives," he said.
Students caught smoking or vaping in Two Harbors High School are given a three-day suspension, he said.
In response to the problem of e-cigarettes in general, the doors to Proctor High School's restrooms were removed at the beginning of the school year, Rohweder said.
"As we go and check bathrooms, when they hear the door open, they tuck them away," he said. "Now we are able to get into our bathrooms without them knowing we're coming in. ... You can always smell it. It smells fruity."