Excerpt from Big Vape by Jamie Ducharme, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Big Vape

The Incendiary Rise of Juul

by Jamie Ducharme

Big Vape by Jamie Ducharme X
Big Vape by Jamie Ducharme
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  • First Published:
    May 2021, 336 pages

    Jun 2022, 336 pages


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Grace Graham-Taylor
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Print Excerpt


James Monsees didn't know what he was doing anymore. Standing outside Stanford University's Design Loft one night in late 2004, a burning cigarette perched between his fingers, the twenty-four-year-old suddenly couldn't square who he was with the smoky mess of paper and tobacco in his hand. Here he was, well on his way to a master's degree from one of the most prestigious product design programs in the country, and yet he was still sucking on a burning tube of tobacco and chemicals, knowing full well it was terrible for his health. It felt primitive. More than that, it felt dumb. He looked over at his classmate and smoke-break buddy Adam Bowen, who was puffing away on his own cigarette, and felt only bewilderment. Why were they both still doing this?

Adam couldn't think of a single good reason, either. He'd tried to quit smoking plenty of times before—always cold turkey, never successfully—and yet there he stood, filling his lungs with tar and smoke. "We're relatively smart people," the two marveled, "and we're out here burning sticks." There had to be something better. Why shouldn't they be the ones to create it?

The pair's late-night breakthrough came about two years after Adam enrolled in Stanford's graduate product design program, which taught about a dozen students a year to approach the craft through a unique blend of engineering, business, art, psychology, and sociology. He'd started at Stanford in 2002, four years after graduating from Pomona College with a degree in physics. The quiet, cerebral Tucson, Arizona, native lived up to the small liberal arts college's reputation for attracting the "smartest" students of California's seven linked Claremont Colleges. Anybody who'd known Adam as a kid wouldn't have been surprised to learn that he'd excelled in school and gone on to study product design. He'd spent his childhood drawing detailed renderings of cars and planes—anything with an engine, really. It was a fascination he never grew out of. At Pomona, he took a special interest in researching NASA's so-called Vomit Comet, a reduced-gravity aircraft notorious for making its crew members ill, and he joined the Sigma Xi scientific research honor society.

Adam took a few years off between degrees, but eventually, the pull of the classroom called him to Stanford, where it was immediately clear to peers that he was the real deal. "Adam was obviously a standout from the beginning," says classmate Colter Leys. "He just had an amazing, easy facility for things that other people had a hard time with." He was quiet but easygoing, enigmatic but funny and warm, once you got to know him. Stress seemed to roll off his shoulders—and there was plenty of that at Stanford.

James Monsees arrived at Stanford a year after Adam, but it didn't take long for them to become a duo. "There was a crowd of people who smoked cigarettes, and they were kind of in that crowd together," Leys says. Small talk and brainstorms over cigarette breaks proved enough to help the two men form a bond.

James had always been an improbable smoker. Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, he was raised by his physician mother to hate cigarettes. Her father had been a heavy smoker, and she'd lost him to lung cancer far too young. James carried that loss with him. But adolescence being what it is, and James being who he was, the temptation to try a cigarette eventually grew too heavy to cast off. He had always been a curious kid, the kind who loved to take things apart and put them back together. As a teenager, when he realized his parents had no intention of buying him a car for his sixteenth birthday, he built himself one instead, filling his parents' garage with spare parts until he could make them run. When he was a young teenager, he decided he wanted to try cigarettes for himself, too. By the time he graduated from St. Louis's tony Whitfield school in 1998 and moved on to Kenyon College in the tiny town of Gambier, Ohio, he was a regular smoker. "I hated cigarettes," James would say later. "Every time I picked one up, I felt conflicted about it." But addiction has a way of drowning out internal conflict.

Excerpted from Big Vape by Jamie Ducharme. Copyright © 2021 by Jamie Ducharme. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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