A documentary on Juul claiming to be long and comprehensive is currently available on Netflix. Although the VOD platform is reputed for its (sometimes) good series, some of its documentaries have left viewers sceptical in the past. Is that the case here?
Level of Netflix documentaries hits a low
Last year, Netflix produced a docuseries in three one-hour episodes on the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. The documentary was initially based on reality, the still-unsolved disappearance of an aeroplane and all its passengers, but quickly went off on….. let’s say another course.
In a moment of bravery, after “studying how an aeroplane works” on Wikipedia, a retired lady with a passion for detective novels who had been following the investigation avidly, saw “something that the experts had completely missed”. By “experts”, understand hundreds of design engineers, pilots and radar specialists, all completely left behind by a grandma who had just read Wikipedia, something they hadn’t thought of.
Yours truly remembers thinking at the time “all we need now are UFOs”. In fact, it was just a matter of patience…the extra-terrestrial theory was put forward about thirty minutes later.
Overall, the documentary on flight MH370 was considered to be the worst, to date, of what could result when a channel seeks to boost its viewing figures and create a “buzz” to the detriment of public information. Inevitably, others were jealous, and the documentary on Juul stepped into the arena, determined to knock the champion off the top spot. Does it have the means to achieve its goal?
The series is produced by Amblin Television. This company was launched in the mid-1980s by a young director with the goal of offering TV fiction. This young chap then went on to have a pretty busy career: it was no other than Steven Spielberg himself.
The story of Juul and its two founders is interesting in itself: how the two students found investors, how they created the Ploom, based on heated tobacco, and then the Pax, adopted by cannabis consumers.
The problems started once the Juul model was finalised, when the marketing side was entrusted to an influencer. He launched a campaign targeting “millennials”, a generation which actually had relatively few smokers. According to the participants, this is the person responsible for the downfall of Juul by deviating away from its initial mission.
Vaping has never enabled anyone to stop smoking.Stanton Glantz, one of the participants in this documentary.
However, at that time, the company consisted of six investors sitting on the Board of Administrators and the two founders. Out of these eight decision-makers, seven gave the green light. Only one expressed any doubts and warned against the road of no return down which Juul was heading.
The rest of the documentary focuses on the public reactions, which were negative with good reason: the Juul launch campaign clearly did not only target smokers. One cannot help wondering if the “only” in the previous sentence is not superfluous.
The development of Juul among teenagers then takes up almost all of the second and third episodes, covering the rise in popularity of vaping among young people, the reaction of the FDA and the parents of pupils, with the latter focusing their opposition on the flavours.
Then comes the legal saga, covered by a rather quick summary but which puts forward an interesting fact. The war waged against Juul by some parents was led by a privileged elite with political connections, a minority imposing its will on the majority without taking into account its interests. The documentary drops the word of the moment, calling them “woke”.
The plane comes down with Juul in it
The EVALI crises is the best moment and is handled perfectly. The start is told from the point of view of the general public, with testimony from teenage victims accusing Juul and vaping, the media frenzy, and everything that followed. Then comes the FDA declaration, which absolved Juul, and the contrite expressions of those same witnesses who admitted to vaping THC. The documentary emphasises that the press was very keen when it came to reporting the scandal but went rather quiet when it came to the absolution given to vaping.
The fall of Juul is also well explained. The viral marketing campaign which targeted teenagers, the equity stake taken out by Altria, and how the tobacco industry took control of the company, culminating in the departure of the two founders, sidelined by a CEO straight from Big Tobacco are all covered.
All in all, mixed feelings
So, all in all, what do we think of the documentary? Honestly, it’s difficult to form an opinion. Factual errors tarnish a picture which is not that bad in fact, even though yours truly had to watch the whole thing three times and required the more nuanced opinion of a colleague to see its qualities.
The story itself is partially re-written, with those two brilliant students who, during a cigarette break at their university, wondered why no one had ever had the idea of vaping nicotine rather than absorbing it by burning it. The action is set in 2007.
The tragedy is that Juul had succeeded where all the others failed. A member of the FDA speaking in the documentary
Herbert A. Gilbert (1963) and Hon Lik (2002) had each filed a patent, respectively in 1965 and 2005, but for Netflix and for Juul, that did not exist. The stage is set: Juul is vaping, and vaping is Juul. As will be seen later in the docuseries, the rest of American and worldwide vaping barely appears at all. Juul caused the loss of the entire sector in the USA but, if the report is to be believed, they were the only ones who really counted in the market.
The choice of some witnesses also leaves a bitter taste. Stanton Glantz, with his sardonic smirk, unashamedly asserts that “vaping has never enabled anyone to stop smoking”. He appears regularly, making himself out to be the good guy in a story he re-writes as he goes along. All his appearances can be summed up by “and yet I warned them that this would happen”. But how much credit can be given to a man who has a habit of relying on questionable studies? Give everyone the mic, fine, but should it really be given to a notorious liar?
What about UFOs?
Like during the documentary on flight MH370 mentioned earlier and which serves here as a model of what not to do, several times during the documentary, yours truly was tempted to wonder “what about UFOs” before the staging set the records straight. The part about EVALI is the best example.
When all is said and done, this is where the whole problem lies. It is a good story told well. This documentary is honest entertainment but absolutely not a tool with which to build a reliable opinion.
Juul’s stroke of genius was launching nicotine salts based on studies by the tobacco industry. What the report does not specify is the level of almost 40 mg of nicotine in the cartridges consumed by teenagers who, often, had never smoked before. This is a pity, given how crucial this point is. The European market was protected from this by a level limited to 20 mg, an aberration for some, but in this case, a real stroke of luck.
As for the way the two founders are depicted, things are ambiguous. Presented successively as two naive young men wanting to do good, then accepting piles of money for their souls with their eyes wide open, it’s very difficult to say if they should be absolved or damned.
Even the conclusion is debatable. A spokesperson from the FDA explains that “the tragedy is that Juul had succeeded where all the others had failed. They had a tool able to defeat tobacco, and they blew it.” It’s true that Juul blew it, but they weren’t the only ones to have this tool, and they didn’t invent it. However, their errors dragged the entire vaping sector down with them in the USA.
In any case, if there is a conclusion to be drawn from this story, it is to never, under any circumstances, trust the tobacco industry, whatever the subject may be. It’s a lesson some would do well to ponder.
So, no, “Big Vape” on Netflix is far from being as catastrophic as some documentaries they have produced, on lost aeroplanes, for example. Neither is it the perfect documentary for a scary Halloween, nor, sadly to get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. However, it does give some solid leads to answer the question: how did it come to this? The best advice is to make up your own mind.