Available on Netflix starting October 11, this docuseries promises to provide a fascinating look into the rise and fall of Juul, the controversial electronic cigarette company.
In an era where documentary series are enjoying widespread popularity, there's one upcoming release that has garnered significant attention. "Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul," directed by R.J. Cutler, promises to take viewers on a rollercoaster journey through the tumultuous rise and fall of the e-cigarette giant, Juul. Despite initial reservations, this series provides a balanced perspective on a company that evolved from a scrappy tech startup into a multibillion-dollar tobacco entity, sparking an epidemic of youth addiction and lung disease.
The Unlikely Beginnings
The story of Juul is nothing short of a rags-to-riches saga. Founded by two Stanford graduate students, James Monsees and Adam Bowen, Juul's inception was marked by noble intentions. The aim was to make the world a better place by offering an alternative to traditional tobacco smoking. As the first episode unfolds, it beautifully captures the brilliance of Juul's vape design, celebrating the innovation rather than vilifying it.
Each of the four episodes provides a counter-narrative that directly confronts the accusations and myths that surrounded Juul, notably from critics like Stanton Glantz. For those who have closely followed the Juul controversy, this docuseries offers a welcome perspective, shedding light on the life-saving potential of vaping and the challenges faced by innovators in bringing their products to market.
The Need for Innovation
The series emphasizes the importance of innovation and speed in disrupting old technologies to make smoking obsolete. This message is particularly pertinent given the public health crisis of millions of Americans still smoking and the high number of smoking-related deaths each year. The graph in the docuseries demonstrates the significant decline in smoking as people switched to Juul, prompting traditional tobacco companies to enter the vape market.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the series is when former Juul employees directly address the falsehoods propagated by critics. For instance, the myth that flavors were primarily intended to "addict" teens is debunked with straightforward logic: adults enjoy these flavors as much as kids do. The series also takes on the media-driven "EVALI" panic, which wrongly linked over 60 deaths to nicotine vaping, including Juul. In reality, these deaths were caused by unregulated THC cartridges containing vitamin E acetate.
The docuseries delves into the missteps made by Juul, particularly its launch campaign called "Vaporized." This campaign was used by anti-vaping groups to accuse Juul of mimicking Big Tobacco's tactics to hook teens. However, it's revealed that those responsible for the campaign were unaware of Big Tobacco's past practices, and "Vaporized" lasted less than six months. Monsees and Bowen admitted that it was a mistake, but the damage was already done.
The Role of Investors
The series suggests that the blame for Juul's missteps lies with the capitalist "angel" investors who exerted enormous pressure on the company to increase sales and profit margins rapidly. This pressure ultimately contributed to a well-funded and vicious backlash that led to Altria buying a minority stake in Juul.
Critical Omissions and Inaccuracies
While "Big Vape" offers a unique perspective on Juul's journey, it does have some critical omissions. It never mentions Michael Bloomberg as a significant funder of anti-vaping organizations, and it fails to highlight the significant drop in teen vaping and smoking rates. The assertion that there was an "epidemic" of teen vaping and the claim that nicotine damages the human brain are also challenged by the series.
The Unwavering Quest
Through all the ups and downs, the founders of Juul, Monsees and Bowen, both former smokers, remained committed to their mission of "reinventing smoking." Their unwavering dedication to this cause, despite immense opposition, is a testament to their intelligence, creativity, and tenacity.
A Documentary for the Ages
"Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul" presents a balanced perspective on a company that polarized public opinion. It provides insight into the challenges faced by innovators and the role of investors in shaping a company's destiny. While the docuseries may not be without its flaws, it offers a vital narrative in a time when public discourse on vaping and its impact remains contentious. As millions tune in to watch, it challenges preconceived notions and offers a different angle on a story that is far from black and white.