A new Netflix documentary attempts to provide a balanced narrative and a nuanced view on the rise and fall of one of the most famous brands in vaping: Juul.
What seems clear is that despite all the missteps that dragged the company down – one of the most critical mistakes is attributed to the company’s marketing practices – Juul’s founders, James Monsees and Adam Bowen, had an idea they thought would succeed where every predecessor had failed: a device that could more efficiently deliver nicotine.
The company’s initial mission was noble: to help transition smokers to the less-harmful e-cigarette, or vape and, in the process, address one of the most challenging public health threats of the past half century.
This was confirmed by former director of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products (CTP) Mitch Zeller, who, taking part in the docuseries, Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul, blamed the company for the aggressive marketing of its products appealing to teenagers, but did not deny the success of the product itself.
“The tragedy is not the product they produced,” Zeller said, “but they then engaged in advertising, marketing and promotion, coupled with a product that did a better job of delivering an addictive drug that appealed to kids whether they intended it or not.”
Those who wish to remain anonymous
However, marketing consultant Jonathan Mildenhall – who also took part in the documentary – warned that the first impression of Juul would always be known “as a brand that tried to recruit the next generation of nicotine addicts”.
Likewise, Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association (AVA), said that despite the bright idea, the company did not think of the side effects of that marketing. “They saw this as just another tech product,” he added. “But it is not a tech product, it is a nicotine product.”
In 2019, San Francisco was the first local administration to ban the sale, distribution or manufacture of e-cigarette products in the city, a move that was applauded by associations of parents with children who used Juul.
Marc Gunther, a businesses and sustainability reporter and one of the documentary’s participants, said: “Kids in nice schools in New York and Silicon Valley have taken up these e-cigarettes, and there has been kind of a moral panic. These are parents with money, with influence and political connections. It is the classic example of a narrow interest group using their political clout in a way that does not benefit the broader good.”
Many former employees agreed to participate in the documentary, which was directed by RJ Cutler and based on the 2021 book Big Vape: The Incendiary Rise of Juul by journalist Jamie Ducharme, but asked to remain anonymous. They allowed the use of their voices but did not want to appear on camera. Juul co-founders Bowen and Monsees declined to participate in interviews, although archival materials from past conversations with them are included.
From its origin as a startup based at Stanford University through its evolution, Juul advertised early and often. At the height, Juul had over 4,000 employees and was valued at nearly $40bn. Today it is worth less than 5% of that value.
Juul keeps swinging
On one hand the documentary points to Juul’s marketing strategy as the crucial cause of its decline – leading to a massive spread among kids and the vaping-associated lung injury, or Evali, crisis which contributed to increased misperceptions around alternatives; while on the other, contacts with Big Tobacco companies, primarily Altria, also fuelled public distrust in Juul.
When Juul began to move away from its initial vision, that is, to design a product to fight the tobacco industry and guarantee smokers a less harmful alternative to their health, the role of the co-founders also became increasingly marginal, leading to their resignations. In 2019, Kevin Burns resigned as Juul’s CEO and was replaced by former Altria executive KC Crosthwaite.
In March this year, Altria swapped its 35% stake in Juul for heated tobacco intellectual property rights, ending an investment which plummeted in value from $12.8bn to only $250m in just over four years.
Last year, the FDA rejected Juul’s premarket tobacco product application (PMTA) and ordered the company to pull its vaping products off the market. Juul successfully appealed the ban and remained on the market pending an additional PMTA review.
Over the summer Juul introduced a new e-cigarette, Juul2, which uses age-verification technology to restrict under-age use. The company then submitted a PMTA to the FDA.
Where the saga goes from here is anyone’s guess, but federal authorities seem intent on continuing the crackdown on smoking and vaping. The future of the company remains uncertain. As of final quarter of 2023, Juul has paid nearly $3bn in legal settlements across the US.
– Antonia Di Lorenzo ECigIntelligence staff
Photo: Thibault Penin