By Lindsay Steele
Now Streaming: Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul (Netflix)
Streaming service: Netflix
Rating: TV-MA (language, depictions of drug use)
Summary: In this docuseries, a scrappy electronic cigarette startup becomes a multibillion-dollar company until an epidemic causes its success to go up in smoke.
Review/ reflection: My maternal grandmother smoked three packs of discount cigarettes a day in her tiny, one-bedroom home — a pack-and-a-half if she was trying to cut back. I dreaded going over there as a child because I knew my eyes would water and that the second-hand smoke would make my little sister nauseous. I hated the stale stench it left on my hair and clothes.
My grandmother passed away from smoking-related lung cancer in 2002. I didn’t get to know or appreciate her until she was too sick to use cigarettes anymore. Over the past 20 years, I have come to understand that she wasn’t inherently weak or inconsiderate; smoking was one of the few pleasures she had in her difficult life.
My grandmother was the type of person Juul founders Adam Bowen and James Monsees thought about when they first began developing a nicotine delivery product that would offer a similar experience to smoking without the health risks. At least, that was their hope. Perhaps, with such a product, my grandmother could have lived a bit longer — and I would have spent more time in her house getting to know her.
However, the strategies Juul used to attract smokers to a seemingly safer product — such as offering flavors and a stronger hit of nicotine — also attracted a generation of teenagers that had never used nicotine products. An irresponsible and short-lived marketing campaign followed in the footsteps of mid-century cigarette ads. Juul marketed its product as a sexy and trendy lifestyle accessory instead of a highly addictive drug-administering device with yet-unknown health risks.
The teenage vaping crisis that followed, as well as reports of vaping-related illnesses, publicly overshadowed any potential benefits of Juul to smokers. At one point, the FDA attempted to ban the vaping device but was unsuccessful. Flavored nicotine pods are no longer readily available in stores or online and some municipalities have banned vaping in public places. To date, Juul has paid nearly $3 billion in legal settlements across the United States and the future of the company remains uncertain, the documentary states.
This documentary, based on the 2021 book “Big Vape: The Incendiary Rise of Juul” by Jamie Ducharme, smartly leans into the morally gray aspect of vaping rather than simply condemning cigarettes, vaping devices or both. To do so, in my opinion, would have been trite and condescending. Interviews with smokers, vapers, journalists, industry experts and former Juul employees offer viewers the opportunity to understand the dynamics at play and the missteps along the way. These interviews also help viewers who have never smoked or vaped — like myself — to understand the dynamics of nicotine addiction.
Bowen and Monsees refused to be interviewed for the documentary but their voices are heard in archival footage. Intriguing and stylish graphic illustrations (see photo) enhance the mood of the documentary and are particularly useful during narrations and audio-only interviews.
This documentary likely won’t sway people for or against vaping as a smoking alternative, but I suspect it will help viewers to better understand the factors at play and, perhaps, become more compassionate toward people who deal with nicotine addiction.
What did this documentary teach you about the vaping crisis?
Do you believe the founders were sincere in their desire to save lives? Why or why not?
What do you think was the biggest misstep for Juul?
(Editor’s note: Lindsay Steele is a reporter for The Catholic Messenger. Contact her at email@example.com or by phone at (563) 888-4248.)