Netflix just released a four-part documentary called ‘Big Vape’ on the rise and fall of JUUL. I watched all 3 hours and 10 minutes of it so you don’t have to. Let’s discuss what they got right—and everything they got wrong.
Watching the story of how a scrappy Silicon Valley start-up became a multi-billion dollar company wasn’t exactly how I planned to spend my weekend, but here we are. Where there are media portrayals of vaping, I’ll be there to pick them apart.
In the trailer for the series, titled Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of JUUL, I saw a few alarming depictions of EVALI and the youth vaping crisis, including stories from teenagers who got sick, so I knew that this would be an important watch.
I was curious to see how the documentary series would present and depict some of vaping’s recent history, including the EVALI outbreak in the US and the bad press from JUUL’s marketing fouls.
Let’s dive into the most important takeaways from the series.
JUUL’s Marketing (to Children)
The few former members of JUUL’s marketing team that took part in Big Vape insisted that the infamous “Vaporized” campaign, which critics have argued used marketing tactics taken directly from Big Tobacco’s playbook, was entirely unintentional.
They instead painted the incident as a careless accident carried out by an ignorant marketing director who didn’t understand the ethics involved in advertising a nicotine product.
The former employees who contributed in Big Vape said that this campaign was created and deployed in only a few short months, which they claimed would’ve made it impossible for them to have researched and executed the marketing tactics from Big Tobacco’s past. But the congressional hearing and various court cases on the topic paint a different picture.
This claim of pure ignorance comes despite James Monsees, one of the founders of JUUL, admitting to having reviewed tobacco industry documents, saying, “It became a very intriguing space for us to investigate because we had so much information that you wouldn’t normally be able to get in most industries.”
Then, in a 2018 interview with the Stanford professor who would ultimately dissect his company’s marketing tactics and publish a damning report, “Monsees indicated that the design of JUUL’s advertising had been informed by traditional tobacco advertisements and that [Stanford’s] online tobacco advertising collection had been quite useful to them.”
“Monsees indicated that the design of JUUL’s advertising had been informed by traditional tobacco advertisements and that [Stanford’s] online tobacco advertising collection had been quite useful to them.”
“JUUL Advertising Over its First Three Years on the Market” — Robert K. Jackler et al.
If you’re unfamiliar with JUUL’s “Vaporized” campaign, it has some eerie similarities when compared to Big Tobacco’s ad campaigns. The cigarette ads directed at young people during Big Tobacco’s advertising heyday featured themes of sex appeal, freedom, relaxation, community, and of course, looking cool.
When you compare the “Vaporized” campaign with these cigarette ads side-by-side, you’ll see a number of distinct similarities.
JUUL Ad vs. Lucky Strike Ad
On top of all this, JUUL’s social media presence is another concern. The company targeted influencers in droves, and even after facing criticism that led to them taking their social media profiles offline, it didn’t matter—the damage was done, and the #juul hashtag continued to grow in their absence.
Critics find it hard to believe that this was all just a coincidence or an accident borne of sheer ignorance, despite what the docuseries claims. For many, pure carelessness can’t be blamed for a series of “missteps” appearing so pointed and deliberate.
Big Vape’s Depiction of EVALI
This is where my ears pricked up. I was so ready to be angry at the Big Vape docuseries if they got this part wrong. But I was pleasantly surprised by their depiction of the EVALI outbreak.
It begins with a few stories from once-teenage vapers who started JUULing for different reasons. One said he thought it was just flavouring and water and didn’t even realise it had nicotine. One said she started because her friends were doing it.
Then, they talked about how they started getting sick. They talked about respiratory failure and collapsed lungs and breathing tubes. A children’s hospital pulmonologist said that kids were flooding her ward with all the same symptoms—and they all vaped.
So, naturally, the condition—called E-cigarette and Vaping Use-Associated Lung Injury (EVALI)—was blamed on the most popular vaping product among kids: JUUL pod kits. The company was decimated in the media, and vaping became public enemy #1.
One of the teens who had EVALI then mentioned how she started with JUUL, but after a while, she’d moved onto something else: THC vapes. She thought that the JUUL was safe, so a THC cartridge would be no different.
As we now know, EVALI wasn’t caused by nicotine vaping; it resulted from the mass-production of black-market THC cartridges which were “watered down” with a compound called vitamin E acetate, which causes a host of life-threatening lung issues when inhaled.
Big Vape did an excellent job of showcasing the timeline of the media latching on to blame JUUL for the outbreak, and how even when the cause was determined, the fear-mongering news stories continued to blame nicotine vaping.
One guest noted that fact-checking stories rarely get as much attention as the “vaping kills kids” headlines, which is undoubtedly true. Nobody cares that the original story is wrong if it gives them an enemy to direct their anger toward.
The Invention of the Vape
One thing that irked me about Big Vape was that they implied that the founders of JUUL essentially “invented” the vape as we know it today. They talk about this revolutionary idea from two Stanford students who were smoking on campus and came up with the idea to remove all of the harmful chemicals from a cigarette but still enjoy their social nicotine consumption.
Big Vape mentions that “vaporisers existed,” but that they were bulky and not at all portable. They essentially claim that these two students invented the portable e-cigarette. This is in spite of the fact that there was a vaping industry blossoming before the JUUL was ever brought to market.
Big Vape doesn’t once mention Hon Lik, the Chinese pharmacist and inventor of the e-cigarette model we still use to this day (one with a heating element, aerosolized liquid, and a battery).
Hon Lik invented and manufactured the first e-cigarette in China in 2004 called the Ruyan, long before the JUUL founders ever conceived of their idea. The Ruyan devices looked like a cigarette or a tobacco pipe and certainly weren’t the desktop-sized machines depicted in the docuseries.
Another thing Big Vape gave the JUUL founders far too much credit for was the invention of nicotine salt E-Liquids, which were invented by Dr Chenyue Xing. She was employed by JUUL at the time, tasked with creating a form of nicotine that hit the bloodstream faster than freebase nicotine could. She succeeded.
I was thrilled to hear her speak in the docuseries, but I was bummed that she wasn’t given full credit for her incredible invention. While the founders of JUUL certainly manufactured this type of nicotine and ensured it became widespread, Dr Xing was the inventor, and to give her any less than full credit is a disservice to her as a scientist.
Is Big Vape Balanced?
I will say that overall, I felt that Big Vape was mostly balanced. It tries to give everyone a voice. And when you’re talking about a topic as divisive as vaping is, you’re going to have a number of differing opinions.
The series opens with a sequence showing different guests contributing varying perspectives—one would say, “JUUL took over my life,” while the next said, “I haven’t touched a cigarette since my first puff of a JUUL.” One would say, “they’re marketing poison to kids,” while the next said, “JUUL gave me my freedom back.”
Big Vape does beg the question, though: when someone’s perspective is founded on misinformation, is it productive or beneficial to the viewer to give that person a voice on such a widespread platform?
When a concerned mother of a teen vaper blames flavourings for their child’s addiction, saying that flavours are specifically marketing to children (when we know that flavours are in fact the driving factor for many adult smokers who make the switch), is it ethical to even showcase that perspective?
There were several points, particularly when one of their guests made a claim that was incorrect or unfounded, where that claim was directly followed by a correction from an expert. I did appreciate the rebuttals.
For example, one of the mothers from PAVE (Parents Against Vaping E-cigarettes) said something along the lines of, “There’s only anecdotal evidence that these products help adult smokers,” which was then refuted by an expert, who clarified that we do, in fact, have ample statistical evidence supporting its efficacy.
Big Vape certainly gives a voice to people who make a number of bad claims—but redresses the misinformation with the next speaker.
Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of JUUL got a lot of things right, and quite a few things wrong. While their depiction of the EVALI outbreak and the balanced perspectives they offered were refreshing, the shrugging off of JUUL’s youth-centric marketing was disingenuous.
If you’re interested, the docuseries is available on Netflix now in four parts, each focusing on a stage of JUUL’s rise and fall from grace.
I certainly learned a few things, even as a bona fide vaping expert.
But hey, if you don’t feel like giving over 3 hours of your time to a JUUL story, we’ve summed it all up here for you.