Which makes the ascendance of e-cigarettes all the more infuriating, particularly because they appeal to the very group — teenagers — that anti-tobacco advocates most wanted to protect.
That’s the question Jamie Ducharme tackles in “Big Vape: The Incendiary Rise of Juul.” A journalist who wrote about vaping for Time, Ducharme depicts Juul as a trailblazing innovation that sought to disrupt Big Tobacco but instead became its partner — and in the process realized staggering success: Juul Labs, according to Ducharme, reached a $10 billion valuation faster than any other company in history.
“Big Vape” is not a sweeping business narrative. But Ducharme provides a balanced, methodical account of how an addictive new smoking product with unknown health hazards became ubiquitous in American high schools.
While most investigations of cigarette companies have clear villains and heroes, “Big Vape” presents Juul’s founders as conflicted figures who defy easy moral judgment. Adam Bowen and James Monsees met as graduate students at Stanford University in the early 2000s. They were smoking buddies, and, unable to quit their habit, they designed an e-cigarette for a class project. They promised that it would retain the pleasures of smoking without the same carcinogenic risks, and their stated goal was noble enough: to transition adult smokers away from their deadly burn sticks in favor of a high-tech, and presumably safer, alternative.
No one disputes that they wanted to create an entirely different cigarette — and eventually they did — but they also spurred the perilous vaping revolution among teenagers, which creates a central tension in “Big Vape.”
Were Bowen and Monsees well-intentioned visionaries who lost control of the beast they created? Or were they greedy entrepreneurs who gladly sacrificed the health of young people for their own considerable enrichment?
A bit of both, appears to be the answer.
While e-cigarettes come in many forms, they typically include a tiny battery and a cartridge of liquid nicotine. When the user inhales, the battery heats the nicotine, which turns into an inhalable aerosol. Because the aerosol looks like vapor, this new ritual was called “vaping.”
It was hardly an overnight success, as numerous companies, including the tobacco giants, struggled to find the right combination of taste, distribution and branding. Bowen and Monsees had mixed results with their early e-cigarettes, but in 2015 they launched Juul (eventually changing the name to Juul Labs). Juul products were sleek (the smoking device was the size of a flash drive), satisfying (mango was its most popular fruit flavor) and marketed to young people. The company hired trendsetters and models for publicity campaigns, gave away the product at concerts and clubs, and released limited-edition devices in fashionable colors. Young vapers posted memes on YouTube and Instagram, and high school bathrooms became de facto Juul clubhouses. In a 2018 survey, 21 percent of high school students said they had vaped in the past 30 days.
Never mind that you had to be at least 18 (or 21 in some states) to buy an e-cigarette or that Juul’s founders said the product was originally meant for adults. As Ducharme notes, “Nicotine dependence is a very good business model.”
Juul Labs is based in San Francisco, and “Big Vape” limns the freewheeling, and at times reckless, corporate culture of a Silicon Valley start-up. Ducharme argues that executives cut regulatory corners. In lieu of rigorous safety testing, employees sampled new concoctions. Products were given juvenile names. But it all worked, at least for a while, and Juul’s success led to its marriage with Big Tobacco. In 2018, Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris, paid $12.8 billion for a 35 percent stake in Juul Labs. Juul was no longer a disrupter of Big Tobacco, Ducharme observes, but a co-conspirator.
The investment was also a depressing parable for capitalism today. The windfall should have allowed Juul to finance future growth, but less than $300 million actually went to the company. The rest was pocketed by its equity holders, including Bowen and Monsees, who on paper became instant billionaires.
The vaping juggernaut didn’t last. Even if it’s safer than conventional cigarettes, a nicotine product is still not safe, and parents with addicted, ailing teenagers demanded action. In 2019, vapers across the country began falling ill, some even dying. Research ultimately showed that most of those who got sick had used products containing THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana, which is not used in nicotine e-cigarettes like Juul — but the entire category took a hit. Most flavored e-cigarettes were banned. State attorneys general filed suits. First lady Melania Trump condemned the growing epidemic of youth vaping. Juul’s top management turned over, with the founders eventually leaving. In 13 months, Juul’s valuation plunged 68 percent, from $38 billion to $12 billion.
“Big Vape” conveys the forces behind a powerful social trend that undercut public health while also offering a case study in how to squander the riches of a rocket-fueled tech company. The arrogance and shortsightedness of its leaders, Ducharme concludes, led to “an epidemic not just of youth addiction but also of public scrutiny, from which it’s not clear Juul will ever recover.”
The Incendiary Rise of Juul
By Jamie Ducharme
318 pp. $29.99