The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Big Vape
Big Vape
The Incendiary Rise of Juul
by Jamie Ducharme

Paperback (7 Jun 2022), 336 pages.
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
ISBN-13: 9781250838971
Genres
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Critics:
  

A propulsive, eye-opening work of reporting, chronicling the rise of Juul and the birth of a new addiction.

It began with a smoke break. James Monsees and Adam Bowen were two ambitious graduate students at Stanford, and in between puffs after class they dreamed of a way to quit smoking. Their solution became the Juul, a sleek, modern device that could vaporize nicotine into a conveniently potent dosage. The company they built around that device, Juul Labs, would go on to become a $38 billion dollar company and draw blame for addicting a whole new generation of underage tobacco users.

Time magazine reporter Jamie Ducharme follows Monsees and Bowen as they create Juul and, in the process, go from public health visionaries and Silicon Valley wunderkinds to two of the most controversial businessmen in the country.

With rigorous reporting and clear-eyed prose that reads like a nonfiction thriller, Big Vape uses the dramatic rise of Juul to tell a larger story of big business, Big Tobacco, and the high cost of a product that was too good to be true.

1
SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE (2004–2005)

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.

Full Excerpt

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.

TIME reporter Jamie Ducharme's comprehensive study of Juul is a tale of unregulated tech and corporate greed.

Print Article

In Big Vape, TIME reporter Jamie Ducharme studies the short but inflammatory history of Juul. Her comprehensive report, replete with testimonies and research, probes to what extent the company is responsible for widespread underage vaping. In the process she uncovers mistakes, recklessness and corporate greed, building up a picture of a business that, in many cases, prioritized profits over people.

The story of Juul begins like a familiar Silicon Valley success tale. In 2004, Adam Bowen and James Monsees, two bright but inexperienced young graduates, had an idea: to create a sophisticated, techy alternative to traditional smoking. After years of struggle and hard work perfecting their product, it catapulted them into stratospheric success. Had the story finished there, it would have had a happy ending. But when Juuls began showing up in high school classrooms, the company found itself faced with accusations that its marketing choices were to blame. This, coupled with the later appearance of a "cluster of pulmonary illnesses" linked to e-cigarette use, has put the company's future in serious doubt. Ducharme's timely investigation unspools how Juul reached this point of crisis, while also drawing attention to the perils of unregulated industry.

The style of Big Vape will be familiar to readers of quality investigative journalism. Ducharme writes in a level-headed, even tone, carefully weighing up her findings as though they were evidence presented in court. She allows for the possibility that in the early days Juul was not so much malicious as simply irresponsible. However, while Bowen and Monsees never actively sought out an underage demographic for their product, the colorful, aspirational aesthetic of Juul's early media campaigns makes its take-up by teenagers seem almost inevitable. Despite multiple warnings that their branding would attract the underage, the company — and Monsees in particular — refused to alter Juul's image. Ducharme's analysis suggests that the spread of teenage vaping could have been avoided, and that Juul is at least partly culpable for a whole new generation of nicotine-addicted young people.

Later, as the company continued to engorge, Bowen and Monsees faded into the shadows. They ceded control to a successive string of CEOs, whose appointments were based on their ability to make profits for the company's cabal of investors. Ducharme presents this trajectory with cool restraint, illustrating her findings with statements from staff who joined the company early on. When Juul struck up a partnership with Altria, one of the world's largest producers of tobacco, many saw it as an act of moral turpitude. They were quickly proven right. The company's growing obsession with profitability, combined with its overtly cozy relationship with the larger tobacco industry, made for some sleazy salesmanship indeed. Juul's attempt at a school outreach program was particularly obscene. Though ostensibly designed to dissuade teenagers from vaping, the program seemed instead to subtly imply the superiority of Juul over other products — a move ripped straight from the playbook of Big Tobacco.

Ducharme also studies the difficulty that a lumbering bureaucratic behemoth like the Food and Drug Administration has in regulating new technologies. Though the relationship between Juul and the FDA was combative from the start, the organization could not move fast enough to control Juul's practices. Early on, this allowed Bowen and Monsees to freely experiment with their formula and testing practices, veering into ethically sticky territory. Later, it resulted in serious concerns that the long-term effects of vaping were little understood.

The hubristic desire for progress, consequences be damned, is very much a theme of our times, and in Juul's case the repercussions are still unfolding. Now facing hundreds of lawsuits due to its product's possible link to pulmonary disease, the company should serve as a cautionary tale against the relentless pursuit of profit at the cost of safety. Well-crafted and painstakingly researched, Big Vape is an engrossing case study of the dangers of unregulated corporate growth.

Reviewed by Grace Graham-Taylor

Boston Magazine
[F]or those wondering how a smoking cessation product could seize so much public attention, Big Vape holds some fascinating answers.

Library Journal
Ducharme grabs readers' attention early on. This is not a scientific book, but rather a social examination of the rise of the vaping industry. For fans of Sherri Mabry Gordon's Smoking, Vaping, and Your Health.

Washington Post
Big Vape is not a sweeping business narrative. But Ducharme provides a balanced, methodical account of how an addictive new smoking product with unknown health hazards became ubiquitous in American high schools.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A deep investigative dive into the electronic cigarette behemoth...Based on dozens of interviews with former employees, investors, doctors, and researchers, this well-rounded journalistic narrative is consistently informative and alarming. Intensive, exemplary reportage on a controversial industry cloaked in scandal.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Ducharme presents an evenhanded retelling of the company's scandals up to the point, in 2020, when Monsees and Bowen left. Fast-paced and impressively researched, this detailed account sings.

Author Blurb Christopher Leonard, author of the New York Times bestseller Kochland
Jamie Ducharme has uncovered the iceberg beneath our public-health equivalent of the Titanic disaster. Big Vape is a dazzling story that crackles with the energy of a nicotine buzz, mixing tales of groundbreaking innovation with those of corporate greed and government dysfunction. More than anything, this is a story about American capitalism today, and it explains why a new generation is hooked on the most addictive of drugs. This is a landmark piece of investigative reporting.


Author Blurb Leana Wen, M.D. author of Lifelines: A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health
Combining meticulous research with gripping storytelling, this is a must-read with important lessons for policymakers, CEOs, and public health professionals alike. As a physician, I witnessed firsthand the harmful impact of vaping on young people. Big Vape explains how this happened. Readers will learn a lot.

Author Blurb Reeves Wiedeman, author of Billion Dollar Loser
The rise and fall of Juul is an instructive tale, and Jamie Ducharme does an excellent job detailing how one bad decision after another led the company astray in this deft rendition of grand start-up dreams gone up in smoke.

Print Article

The Importance of "Tech Company" Status

Uber vehicle in traffic In Big Vape, Jamie Ducharme describes an existential crisis at the heart of Juul; while its founders (and many of its employees) saw the business as a tech start-up, to the Food and Drug Administration (and much of the public) it looked like a manufacturer of tobacco products. This distinction is not a mere matter of brand identity — having "tech company" status offers huge advantages to businesses. Many companies covet this privileged label, and there are good reasons why.

In the first place, it comes with a certain prestige. Calling yourself a tech start-up signifies modernity, newness and, importantly, profitability. Inferring connection to Silicon Valley is like dangling bait to investors, even if the association is a vague one. In 2011, for example, sandwich chain The Melt managed to secure $10 million in funding from Sequoia Capital, in part because of its focus on tech. Its founder, Jonathan Kaplan, claimed he had developed "a set of technology that allows us to make the perfect grilled cheese."

A sandwich shop claiming to be a tech start-up might seem ludicrous, but the borders of the tech industry are porous and ill-defined. For some, the right definition is the most obvious one: a tech company is a company that sells technological products. Apple, Sony and Microsoft are tech companies. The Melt and Sweetgreen (a salad bar that tried a similar trick) are not.

Others think that this definition is too narrow and that tech companies should be defined by the centrality and originality of tech in their business. According to Jamie Hinton, the CEO of technology consultancy Razor, "If the contribution of technology to your business and your customers becomes an integral part of your operations, then it's time to ask yourself if you're a company in X industry, or if you're a tech company that also happens to be in X industry." His thoughts are echoed by Greg Bettinelli of Upfront Ventures, who says simply, "Ask the question: Could this company exist without technology? If the answer is no, it has to be a tech company." Under this definition, The Melt and Sweetgreen would have a better claim: both companies use specialized algorithms designed in-house, and could argue that without this technology they could no longer operate.

How a business is categorized matters. Part of the allure of the "tech" label is that such companies can sometimes sidestep regulations that might otherwise apply to the goods or services they offer. It has been in the interest of Uber, for example, to present itself as being in tech over transportation; this is what has given it an edge over traditional taxi businesses, as it has for a time not had to comply with costly national transport regulations. Likewise, for Juul, the label of tech company has meant that it was not regulated at the outset in the way that other tobacco-related industries are.

For this reason, companies will battle to hold on to their techy credentials. Freedom from regulation is great for business. However, when tech companies cause harm, the proviso of "tech" can protect them from being held liable. But as technology is becoming more and more embedded in our lives, legislators are slowly catching up.

For the firms with the most visibility, this has become a topic of consternation. While at present, calling yourself a tech company is still a promising way to gain attention for your business, it's unclear whether larger organizations will continue to be able to make this claim so easily. Already, the European Court of Justice has ruled that Uber is a transportation service like any other, regardless of its protestations. Facebook has also faced serious scrutiny in recent years over whether it can still justifiably claim to be a tech company, or if it should be classed as a media company instead. These debates are important, because reclassifying Facebook as a media company, for example, would place severe limitations on what it could allow to be distributed on its platform. The removal of hate speech, false advertising and fake news would become an obligation rather than a courtesy.

Uber vehicle in traffic, photo by Victor Avdeev

Filed under Society and Politics

By Grace Graham-Taylor

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