Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul Review 2023 Tv Show Series Cast Crew Online
“Move fast and break things” was the ethos of James Monsees and Adam Bowen, the founders of Juul. That they did, with their revolutionary e-cigarette taking the world by storm in 2017 and 2018, earning billions in revenue. The good times were not to last, however, and director R.J. Cutler’s Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul—a four-part Netflix docuseries (Oct. 11) based on Jamie Ducharme’s book—details the misjudgments and mistakes that led to Juul’s transformation from a company whose value peaked at $40 billion to one that’s now worth less than 5 percent of that total. It was a rocket ship that crashed hard, and it was undone, apparently, by the least surprising of factors.
Juul was the brainchild of Monsees and Bowen, two brilliant Stanford students who struck upon their grand idea during one of their many daily smoke breaks. What if, they surmised, they could reinvent their habit so that users didn’t suffer the harmful effects of combustible cigarettes—specifically, the burning of tobacco leaves and inhalation of carcinogens, which caused cancer—but could nonetheless maintain the pleasurable physical and social aspects of smoking? If that was doable, millions of adult addicts could be weaned off harmful traditional cigarettes, saving their lives in the process. It was a notion with world-changing potential, and by all accounts, Monsees and Bowen were initially driven by this noble mission to provide a healthy smoking alternative—not to mention one that didn’t require breaking any dependence, since users would still receive their coveted nicotine fix.
Their initial concept was the Ploom, a slender but clumsy e-cigarette that had to be filled with butane. Despite the fact that most venture capital firms wouldn’t invest—due to “vice clauses” that required them to steer clear of industries like drugs—they received enough individual VC money to move forward. When Ploom didn’t pan out, they pivoted to a loose-leaf tobacco gadget known as the Pax that became a big hit with cannabis users, thereby providing Monsees and Bowen with a template for what would be their crowning achievement. That was Juul, a sleek device that was dubbed the “iPhone of e-cigs” by Wired’s David Pierce—a phrase that, regardless of its accuracy, now gives him pause. Minimalist, discreet, easy to use, and bolstered by flavored cartridges, it was a stench-free, long-lasting substitute for smokers that promised to change the entire tobacco landscape.
Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul features interviews with numerous past and present Juul employees who expound upon Monsees and Bowen’s virtuous intentions to help smokers avoid inevitable doom. Yet whether that’s true or not, the reality—according to virtually everyone in Cutler’s docuseries—is that the duo treated Juul as a tech rather than a drug (or public health) company, hungrily chasing sales and profits. To do that, they hired Richard Mumby and Steve Baillie to sell Juul, resulting in a “lifestyle” ad campaign full of young, pretty people dancing and having fun with their new favorite e-cigarette. Baillie defends himself on camera as doing what he was good at, but as many experts point out, his strategy utilized almost the exact same imagery and tactics as traditional Big Tobacco marketing endeavors.The first impression of Juul, then, was that it was a familiar wolf in sheep’s clothing, and a year after that campaign launched (and was dropped, after widespread criticism), Juul suddenly took off as a national phenomenon, with social media users and influencers pushing its popularity to the point that demand wildly outpaced supply. This was great news for Monsees, Bowen, and those who had drank their Kool-Aid, if more concerning for FDA officials like Center for Tobacco Products director Mitch Zeller—especially once new data indicated catastrophic yearly increases in e-cigarette use among high schoolers (80 percent) and middle schoolers (50-60 percent), with Juul the most popular brand by far. A backlash ensued from parents and the FDA, which declared it an “epidemic” and warned that the possible benefits provided by Juul and its ilk were outweighed by the harm it was causing by hooking a new generation—which had largely eschewed cigarettes—on nicotine.
This seemed like the opposite of Juul’s stated goals, and the company’s subsequent decision to partner with Altria, parent company of Philip Morris, outright reeked of hypocrisy. In Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul, multiple Juul employees talk about their feelings of betrayal over this move, as well as their reasons for sticking around—namely, they thought they could effect change from within. They also earned $1.3 million each from the sale, while Monsees and Bowen became overnight billionaires. The evidence on display in Cutler’s docuseries suggests that the engine driving most of Juul’s moves was greed. Unfortunately for them, a series of ailments related to e-cigarettes (which were eventually pinned on cannabis products) further cemented growing public and political sentiment that Juul was a danger to the health and safety of kids, and that such a hazard had to be vigorously combatted both legislatively and in the media.
Cutler affords equal time to those on both sides of the Juul divide, including mothers who joined forces to halt the device’s spread among pre-adults. We also hear from a collection of young Juul users who discuss both why they found the product appealing and the (often traumatic) medical consequences of their use. The director refuses to unduly slant his material, but there’s still no mistaking the elephant in the room: Despite all the pro-Juul talk about how it might save people from early cigarette-cancer death, not a single piece of evidence or data is presented to back up that claim. Though they anecdotally sound good, Juul’s positives seem unverified, while its negatives are plain to see.
In late 2019, Juul CEO Kevin Burns was replaced by Altria’s K.C. Crosthwaite, and any pretense that Juul wasn’t an arm of Big Tobacco (versus a competitor) more or less vanished. Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul isn’t short on talking heads who continue to believe in vaping and Monsees and Bowen’s quest. Yet ultimately, there’s nothing very hazy about the damning portrait it paints of the invention and its recent legacy.