JUUL, the electronic cigarette, represented one of the fastest-growing teenage addictions that proliferated under our noses this last decade, and Netflix recently released the documentary series, Big Vape, to tell the story about its public deception and its consequences.
It all started with a familiar Silicon Valley story but unlike Steve Jobs and the Apple success story, Juul’s story ends very differently. Juul’s inventors and co-founders, James Monsees and Adam Bowen, were both Stanford grad students in the early 2000s imbibing the Silicon Valley tech ether in which there was this erroneous notion that tech could do no wrong. They knew that the ills of combustible cigarettes were well documented with people dying of lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease. So, they decided to write their senior thesis in 2005 on an alternative to combustible cigarettes. Coincidentally, Steve Jobs delivered the commencement speech at Stanford that year in which he encouraged all graduates to “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”
Fast forward 13 years to the JUUL e-cigarette that Monsees and Bowen invented, and Silicon Valley had another couple of young billionaires reaping the profits of their crazily popular JUUL vaporizer. But this is where it all went wrong. Their initial public mission statement about wanting to save people from Big Tobacco and the more dangerous combustible cigarette – soon became a smoke and mirrors piece of deception. The people they were really after were teenagers who probably hadn’t ever tried a combustible cigarette – and who didn’t need conversion therapy. They knew that teenagers liked hip packaging and most of all – they knew that they loved the colorful and tasty flavors that JUUL introduced. Mango and Mint were the favorite flavors that had the 12 to 18-year-old Gen Zs hooked. JUUL’s executives also knew that social media was going to be their biggest advertising base, and so if they could get a mega influencer to vape a JUUL online – the craze would spread exponentially. When Bella Hadid was seen glamorously vaping, they were in marketing heaven. The influencers on IG spread the trend like combustible wildfire and before parents knew it, their 10-year-olds were vaping at school – and because of the undetectable smell – it was happening everywhere – even in front of teachers in classrooms.
The JUUL executives completely downplayed the nicotine in the product and its highly addictive effects. They went so far as to come to schools and make speeches without teachers present – doing what Big Tobacco did – denying that there was anything dangerous or addictive about the product. They marketed it as a great-flavored piece of relaxing fun for young people to enjoy. Gen Zs latched onto it as a stress-reducing electronic device that they could easily plug into their laptop, and then blow cool circles of smoke while impressing their friends. This already tech-addicted generation posted tens of thousands of videos online about the coolness of vaping – a respite from a crazy world of complexities.
By 2018 and within months – the vaping craze was greater than anyone could have predicted. Teens reported getting a rush from JUUL and they enjoyed the tingling sensation accompanying that rush. And unlike combustible cigarettes where, if you finish a pack, your lungs burn and you can’t smoke any more, JUUL’s e-cigarettes didn’t burn the lungs and you could vape 24/7. That meant that vapers were ingesting considerably more nicotine than their combustible cousins – and getting addicted much more dangerously. JUUL struggled to keep up with the demand on supplies. With the scarcity came price gouging. It was a runaway epidemic.
The FDA climbed onto the health hazards way after the storm was brewing. By then the U.S. Surgeon General issued a health advisory on the dangers of vaping. The fact that Big Tobacco also climbed into the mix – wanting a share of JUUL so that they could make up for their lost profits – put the credibility of e-cigarettes into disrepute. By 2018 most sane people knew that Big Tobacco had lied to the public about the dangers of smoking for decades. When parents started noticing that their children were highly addicted to JUULING and emailed the company – asking for help to get them off the product – JUUL responded with an evasive legal letter. The inference in their response implied that maybe there was something wrong with the individual, rather than the product. One mother explained how JUUL was never an escape from nicotine hell. It was a new nicotine jail that was created for young people – with addictive propensities as strong as cocaine or heroin. With such a relatively new product on the market, it took a few years before the frightening effects were starting to emerge. By the summer of 2019, teenagers were being rushed to hospital and put on life-saving machines as their lungs collapsed. They were all vapers. The crisis was now out in the open. The CDC later discovered that vitamin E acetate in the e-cigarette was the cause of all the hospitalizations.
Teenage activists started to make their voices heard. They were ex JUUL smokers who experienced the ramifications of the addiction, and they – together with PAVE (Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes) – began to educate the public on the dangers of vaping.
Each year there was an 80% increase in e-cigarette vaping amongst school students and JUUL was the number one brand preferred. When the experts presented these facts to the FDA’s Commissioner, his response was an expletive word. In Netflix’s documentary, multiple pulmonary specialists are interviewed and all of them agree that the lungs are a tender organ – and the only thing that should be entering them – is clean air.
The lawsuits began with Attorney General of Minnesota, Keith Ellison, announcing that they were launching a lawsuit against JUUL. As laboratories began doing extensive testing on lab rats vaping, the results indicated that their arteries stiffened from the vaping. Other scientists argued that in their vaping tests, they found almost none of the carcinogens found in combustible cigarettes. That doesn’t give them a clean bill of health. E-cigarettes are simply less dangerous from a carcinogenic perspective.
With both James Monsees and Adam Bowen in crisis and stepping away from JUUL, the Stanford grads’ dream crashed. By 2022, the FDA rejected JUUL’s PMTA application and ordered the product to be taken off the market. JUUL appealed the ban and remained on the market – pending an additional review. As of the end of 2023, JUUL has paid almost $3 billion in legal settlements across the USA.