Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul (2023) s01e01 Episode Script

The Spark

[indistinct chatter]
[anonymous male employee] I'm not sure
this story can be told on the record,
but I'm gonna tell you anyway.
[David Pierce] This idea that you could
come to Silicon Valley and not only
invent something that is yours,
but also make the world a better place,
that's the dream.
The time was right
for new things to happen.
[man] Everybody was there for a purpose.
Build something
that would change the world.
Tech was gonna fix all of our problems,
all at once.
[Dr. Robert Jackler] There is one leading
preventable cause of death in America,
and that is tobacco use.
Innovation could address all the problems
associated with smoking.
Our goal, our mission
is to eliminate combustible cigarettes.
[Pierce] They had this relentless focus.
Too many people smoke,
we want to help them smoke less,
and we want to give them
a cooler, better, safer way to do it.
People are talking about it.
They're like, "This is going to be big."
One puff and never ever again smoked
another cigarette my whole entire life.
Never again.
[Allen Gladstone] I'm optimistic
that this new innovation
will completely replace cigarettes.
[Pierce] They had taken every lesson
from the tech industry
and applied it to tobacco,
and people just threw money at them.
We were the fastest-growing company
in world history.
[Pierce] They saw this
as just another tech product.
It's not a tech product.
It's a nicotine product.
[man] Fuck it, ship it.
[Pierce] Their goal was not
to make people quit smoking.
Their goal was
to make people start JUULing.
[Ash Casselman] I don't think anyone could
have anticipated how many children
would want this product.
[woman] In the beginning,
you felt like you were part
of a secret club no one knew about yet.
It is not unreasonable
to be skeptical about our intent.
Children's Hospital in Wisconsin
is sounding an alarm
about serious health problems
linked to vaping.
I remember waking up
in an ICU bed, you know,
with my family by my side.
[man] It was like a wave, it swept over.
Everyone was like,
"I don't know if I want to vape anymore."
[Gladstone] We would get hate mail.
"Kid killer, I hope you die!"
[Pierce] As JUUL became the story,
James became the face.
He was the face. He wanted to be the face.
You, sir, are an example to me
of the worst of the Bay Area.
He felt villainized, and I think it was
too much for him to bear.
[woman]There's so much vitriol
on both sides.
The debate is unlike anything
I've seen in public health.
We can't completely favor teens
and completely ignore 35 million adults.
How many kids are you willing to addict
to help one adult quit?
The parents of this country are fed up.
Parents got upset because they forgot
they had to parent their kids,
and JUUL isn't responsible for that.
E-cigarettes are not helping people
quit smoking.
It helped me get off of cigarettes.
Sounds like
a smoking-cessation device to me.
They had a choice,
and they went to maximize the profits.
We're all in this to make money.
We come to San Francisco to make money.
This is America, right?
[Ralph Eschenbach] As all of us have
probably experienced in our lives,
if you watch a major event,
different people come away
with different perspectives.
They all say, "What I saw was the truth,"
but they end up
with different versions of the truth.
[Casselman] The story of JUUL,
I don't think it's black and white.
The reality is it's gray.
[tense music playing]
[Pierce] In the early 2000s, there was
this sense tech could do no wrong.
We place a really big premium
on moving quickly.
[Pierce] "Move fast and break things,"
that's the tech ethos.
You should never be afraid of making
small mistakes in service of huge success.
Stanford and the tech industry have had
this symbiotic relationship for decades.
You had investors all over Silicon Valley
who were starting to say,
"Who's working on interesting
student projects that I can invest in
that turn into hundred-billion-dollar
businesses down the road?"
You had all these undergraduates
wanting to create a start-up, an app.
There were billionaire professors
on campus.
There's this euphoria around
the Silicon Valley sort of ethos.
"We innovate, we disrupt."
Stanford has a great reputation
in attracting talents.
Sometimes it's hard to tell whether
it attracts them or makes them.
But in either case, a lot of
the top people are coming out of Stanford.
[Gabriel Post] James Monsees
and Adam Bowen were classmates
in the Stanford product design program.
[Jamie Ducharme] James and Adam were both
gifted product designers,
and they both studied
this concept of design thinking
or basically infusing design
into every aspect of a product
and its development.
[Ian Fernandez] You're trying to have
empathy and understand your customers,
and any problem you see,
we can try and make a product
to solve that problem.
[Adam Bowen] I was always drawing things,
designing things as a kid.
Airplanes, cars you name it, really.
I don't realize that there was
this career called "Product Design."
I was just naturally
sketching these things.
My parents always told me
I didn't like playing with toys,
I liked playing with vacuum cleaner parts.
When I was 15,
my parents wouldn't give me a car,
so I built a car.
James and I met while we were
in this program at Stanford.
We worked on a lot of projects that had
some social or environmental impact.
[Post] Both Adam and James
had world-class minds.
Adam was an incredible engineer
and was highly competitive as well.
And James was very gifted
in multiple disciplines.
[anonymous Stanford classmate]
James was such a good artist,
and he's also
a brilliant scientist and engineer.
He can do all of that.
We had this amazing place on campus
called The Product Design Loft,
and we got to hide out behind there,
and we would smoke cigarettes.
Smoking was always
a contentious issue in my family.
My mom's father, he smoked a lot.
He smoked many packs of cigarettes a day
and, um, died at a sadly early age.
I hated cigarettes.
Every time I picked one up,
I felt conflicted about it.
[anonymous Stanford classmate]
Smokers were always a bit the misfits.
And, you know, it wasn't very cool
to be smoking cigarettes
in the year 2005.
Adam and I would look
at each other, and we would ask each other
why we were being quite so stupid
hiding out behind this loft.
And, um, we looked inwards at ourselves,
and what we realized was
that it isn't smoking that we love,
it is the things
that smoking does for you.
It is the sharing that you have,
the sharing moments,
or taking a break from your day.
Those are the things that really matter.
[Post] James and Adam were out
on a smoke break
looking down at the burning cigarettes
in their hands,
and thought,
"We must do something better."
James was like,
"Can we take all the bad stuff out,
and still get the stuff we like?"
And that's kind of where
James and Adam kicked off.
As soon as they started talking to
each other, they found common ground
and seemed to be filling in
knowledge gaps for each other.
And James was like, "Why hasn't someone
come up with vaporization solutions yet?"
And Adam just started going off
on essentially a brainstorm.
Smoking impacts a lot of lives,
and it occurred to us that
it's a space where there's been
little or no innovation.
There's 38 million Americans
that still smoke.
There are a billion people
who still smoke globally.
We saw this as
a huge public health opportunity.
I was excited about
the promise for what could come from it
as the idea matured.
[Fernandez] Most people were
happy with it.
But this might have been more from
the faculty side, if I remember right,
they were kind of raising eyebrows.
"So this is a drug-delivery device?"
And not like, "I need drugs
to keep my heart rate pressure down."
This is like This is like nicotine.
[Ducharme] Some of their professors
had concerns
that they should slow down a little,
do more research, make sure they were
building things responsibly
because nicotine is incredibly addictive.
In James and Adam's research,
they found this massive archive
of tobacco industry documents
stored at the University of California,
San Francisco.
[Monsees] At the time,
what we really wanted to learn about was
what are the best technologies
and techniques for eliminating smoking?
It turns out tobacco companies
have worked on this quite a bit.
[Dr. Proctor] Cigarette makers knew
they had a problem.
They were never happy about the fact
their products were killing people.
How can we make a new kind of cigarette
that keeps the addiction
but loses the cancer?
And that becomes a kind of hidden goal
of Big Tobacco in super-secret projects.
And they've already started
in the late 1950s.
[Steven Parrish] To make a product
that would be less harmful,
that was the Holy Grail.
Is there a way
we can reduce the temperature
to generate smoke
without setting the tobacco on fire?
You would basically warm up tobacco
and then get tobacco vapor,
which would include nicotine.
And it would be a truly safer cigarette
because most of the harm from a cigarette
is in the combustion products.
But if they introduce a safer cigarette,
what are they supposed to call it?
They didn't want to admit that their
regular cigarettes were causing cancer.
Trapped in their own webs of deception.
[Gregory Conley]
Every major tobacco company lied,
saying that there is no way
to deliver nicotine
in a way safer than a cigarette.
[Ducharme] James' theory was that
someone on the outside,
someone like him and Adam,
would be necessary to come in
and make that innovation happen.
They really started focusing more
on the vaporization of tobacco.
At the time, vaporizers were a thing,
but it was this massive system.
Not at all portable, not practical.
James was interested in,
how do you make that smaller?
It seemed like
an awesome project to pursue.
James and Adam
built the original prototype,
and they were determined
to make this prototype meaningful.
[Monsees] Is it even possible
to make a safe cigarette?
It turns out that burning tobacco
is the real problem.
Nicotine is addictive, clearly,
but it's not the nicotine
that's really hurting you.
[Bowen] Our goal was to basically create
a whole new experience for people
that retains the positive aspects
of smoking, like the ritual,
but makes it as healthy
and socially acceptable as possible.
[Fernandez] People were raving about it.
And James, you know,
he was on to something
and really hitting it big.
But still, in the genesis of it,
there was this serious health concern
about preventing people
from getting cancer.
[commencement host]
It gives me great pleasure
to introduce this year's
commencement speaker,
Steve Jobs.
[Post] I remember
all sitting together as a class,
and many of us as designers
obviously very inspired by Steve Jobs.
He was almost like a rock star,
you know. [laughs]
[Steve Jobs] Stay hungry, stay foolish.
And I've always wished that for myself.
Each of us were hungry to make
an impact and a change in the world.
As you graduate to begin anew,
I wish that for you.
Stay hungry, stay foolish.
I think those two go hand-in-hand.
I mean, being foolish is kind of
not afraid to take chances.
Try it, do it. Don't hesitate.
- Thank you all very much.
- [applause]
This was one of the biggest problems
this program ever tackled
and tried to solve.
And everybody knows James and Adam
have an awesome idea.
It's incredible,
and their prototype is amazing.
Everyone knows.
Now what?
[Ducharme] After they left Stanford,
they decided this was an idea
they were going to run with
and make into a real company.
But James and Adam were
coming at this problem as underdogs,
and they were not successful.
A lot of companies told them
they were not interested.
A lot of VCs have rules against
investing in vices. They won't do it.
[Ducharme] Because of those vice clauses,
and what are seen as vice industries,
like marijuana, alcohol, tobacco,
around 50 firms told them
that they were not interested at all.
So James and Adam realized
that if they pursued individual investors,
they might have more luck
because they weren't necessarily bound
to the same vice clauses that firms had.
[Eschenbach] Angel investing
is investing in start-up companies,
and angel investors
invest their own money.
And what angel investors
are looking to find
is a company that will change the world
in some level.
Doesn't happen often, I will say that.
James and Adam came to my office
to, uh, make a pitch for their idea,
which they called "Ploom."
They came across as very bright,
very passionate,
and they had a very sophisticated design.
There was no proof at that point in time
that heating and not burning the tobacco
was going to be healthier,
but if you weren't burning,
the general attitude and feeling
was that this would be safer.
It had such potential for saving lives.
My mother smoked all of her life
and eventually died of lung cancer.
So I thought about my mom
and thought this would have been a godsend
if she could have been able
to use this instead
and add years to her life.
So I decided to invest.
Riaz Valani was the investor
in that first round with us.
He was sort of a no-nonsense,
very strong individual.
We knew that we needed some way
to substantiate the health benefits,
and it needed to come
from someone professional.
They called me and said,
"We have this great new idea
that we think is going to
revolutionize tobacco and save lives,
and we'd like to meet with you."
The idea was that they would heat
the tobacco instead of setting it on fire.
And I said to them,
"That's an interesting idea."
"If you avoid the combustion,
you're going to have
a less toxic mix probably."
"But we need some evidence."
"We need to know what effect
are these things actually having."
This whole idea of
"move fast and break things,"
in terms of public health, is stupid.
We want to move progress forward
as fast as we can,
but when you're dealing with things
that impact people's health,
you need to be careful.
Ploom was starting to look
more like a real company.
The investors were more
than just funding sources,
so they would guide them
on how to keep their business scaling up.
The rule I use is that if you're
not spending as much on marketing
as engineering,
your engineering is being wasted.
That's when Kurt was brought in.
[Sonderegger] My experience with marketing
began when I started working at Red Bull.
They have a very unique philosophy
on how they come to market.
Instead of blasting everybody
with advertising and hoping it worked,
they did the opposite.
It was about allowing people
to discover your product in a cool way.
One day I saw
that there was a message from Adam,
and it said something to the effect
that he and his partner
were finishing school at Stanford,
which, of course,
gave it some credibility.
When I walked in,
sometimes you empty your pockets
when you sit down at the table.
I did that and didn't realize
I had a pack of cigarettes.
Immediately, I saw James and Adam
look at the box and look at each other
with an interesting look on their face.
I think in their mind they were like,
"If this guy's a smoker, he'll get it."
Cigarettes are kind of
the monkey on my back.
I really enjoy the relaxation
of having a cigarette,
but statistics are pretty clear.
If you smoke,
you will very likely die from smoking.
I remember they said to me what
I've heard them say hundreds of times.
"Smoking isn't just nicotine delivery.
It's the ritual."
"How can we preserve the ritual
and eliminate the harm?"
That resonated with me right away
because here I am, a conflicted smoker,
who likes the ritual, but can't stand
everything else about smoking.
If they can do that for me,
that could be a great company,
and also probably a pretty big business.
The meeting went well.
I got the job,
but I did say that I felt pretty strongly
that I didn't want to work for a company
that would sell to Big Tobacco.
I thought they were the enemy.
Killing people for years,
lying about the nature
of their own product,
which they knew very well was one
of the most addictive products ever.
I didn't want to be associated
with any of those companies.
When James and Adam
started working on Ploom,
around 37 million people in the US smoked.
[Dr. Proctor]
So many people write off smokers
as people who have just made bad choices.
The truth is that the overwhelming
majority of people who smoke
began their tobacco use as teenagers.
[Dr. Proctor] Cigarette makers
recognize that
if they can addict a teenager to nicotine,
there's a good chance
they may have them for a lifetime.
[Casselman] I was 19.
I was like, "I can't smoke weed.
I'll smoke cigarettes."
It was like some sort
of 19-year-old non-logic.
[Gladstone] Thanksgiving dinner,
my brother convinced me.
He's like, "Just have one. After a big
Thanksgiving dinner, it's the best."
And that was that. That was that.
[Chris Charles] The thing I distinctly
remember is my dad making sure my mom,
she had cigarettes.
That was his husbandly duty.
I remember asking her,
"Can you please quit smoking?"
So that's ironic how I wound up smoking.
Nicotine keeps me focused.
When I'm really stimulated,
it can bring me down.
When I'm tired, it can bring me up.
It's a really unique thing in that way.
[Charles] I enjoyed smoking.
Just the physical activity of
blowing smoke and watching it dissipate.
It did have a relaxing effect.
I wanted to quit smoking
and tried so long to quit,
and felt so badly about it.
My dad had been a smoker my whole life.
I told him I was smoking.
He was disappointed,
then I think we shared a cigarette.
He got cancer.
And I remember all through
the experience of him being sick,
feeling such deep shame
about continuing to smoke.
But it was a huge part
of how I coped with stress.
In the end, when he passed away,
every single time I smoked a cigarette,
I felt like I was doing him a dishonor.
[Dr. Healton] The overwhelming majority
of people who smoke want to quit
and have tried multiple times to quit.
But for people who have never smoked,
the concept that it's not easy
just doesn't connect.
[Dr. Proctor] Nicotine can be as addictive
as heroin and cocaine,
in such a way that you cannot feel normal
unless you have the next dose.
[Gladstone] I tried the patch,
that was the worst.
I was having nightmares. It didn't work.
I tried Nicorette Gum, tried cold turkey,
tried a book, tried a hypnotist one time.
Nothing worked, no matter what I tried.
[Charles] I really wanted to quit,
but those replacements
did not work for me.
They just weren't the same
because I couldn't do this,
and I couldn't do this.
[Conley] If you could not quit smoking
with the gum, patch,
lozenge, or cold turkey,
you were doomed to continue to smoke.
For myself and millions of smokers
around the world,
that is a death sentence.
[Sonderegger] When we started Ploom,
we were doing something
to possibly change the world.
It was "Fuck Big Tobacco."
If I walked in with a shirt
that said "Fuck Big Tobacco,"
people would have been happy I wore it.
All, including Adam and James.
I had some ideas on where I wanted
to start with the project,
specifically probably on the branding
and things like that,
but they didn't have
a working prototype yet.
They thought that they would have it ready
after about six months.
It was pretty clear that there were
more challenges than anticipated
to get that product ready.
We had a multitude of problems.
We had some early devices,
and I took a hit,
and all of a sudden, it exploded.
It shot the rod up into the ceiling.
I remember the look on James' face
was like, "Holy shit."
It could have gone
into my head, basically.
[Eschenbach] Because Riaz was the biggest
amount of money in the company,
James and Adam, when he said, "Jump,"
they said, "How high?"
Riaz became very adamant
that this had to get done fast.
"We're running out of money
and we need to get more."
"We're not gonna get more
if we don't have a working product."
[Ducharme] They were running out of time
because other e-cigarettes
started coming on the market.
This guy is here,
and he is not smoking next to me.
What exactly is NJOY?
NJOY is an electronic cigarette.
[Sonderegger] NJOY was probably
the first company to come on our radar.
They were the anti-Ploom.
As we were using these competitor devices,
which are basically
in the shape of prefab cigarettes,
the question was, "Why are they doing this
if they're trying to help people
quit cigarettes?"
[Sonderegger] And then eventually,
you started seeing
what people started calling vapes.
The products were pretty complicated.
They had to have coils, these batteries,
they had a tank that you could fill
with e-liquid of your choice,
flavor of your choice,
nic strength of your choice
The industry was growing rapidly
because there were no regulations
for vapor products.
It was a new category.
The FDA couldn't regulate it,
so no one was checking
anything about the products,
there were no age restrictions.
It was the Wild West.
But Ploom was a really different device.
Adam and James,
they were coming at it from,
how does it fit in your hand?
How are you going to hold it?
There was more thinking involved.
[Monsees] What we've tried to do
is create a new paradigm.
Something that doesn't
look like a cigarette,
doesn't feel or taste like a cigarette.
It's different.
[Ducharme] The Model One was James
and Adam's first product
to enter the market.
It launched in 2010
and represented the first time
that Adam and James had successfully
made their thesis vision a reality.
This is the Ploom Model One,
which you open by removing the mouthpiece
and inserting
a specially-designed pod capsule.
Reinsert the mouthpiece,
push the button on the bottom,
it clicks to start,
it lights up in about 10 to 20 seconds.
[Sonderegger] As we were getting ready
to launch the Model One,
it was certainly an exciting time for us.
I remember we were toying around
with an ad campaign,
and one of the campaigns we launched with
was "Small, dark, and handsome."
And that was it.
And I dropped that
on one of the e-cig message boards,
and it went crazy.
No one had seen anything like it.
We got all these messages,
the number of reservations
shot through the roof,
and it felt like,
"This is real, this is happening."
"This could be the future of smoking."
Around that time, I started looking for
brand ambassadors to promote the product.
I met Kurt, and I was invited over
to Ploom headquarters.
And they laid out the product
in front of me,
and they're like, "What do you think?"
And I was like, "This is cool."
But it's powered by butane, so you had
to have a little canister of gas.
And then a tiny little pod
with real tobacco.
Then you put the gas in, put the pod in,
screw it on, and off you go.
They wanted it to be like
a modern, social, smoking experience,
which I was like, "Yeah, sounds amazing."
My job, as the field marketing manager,
was to introduce the world to the product
and get as much information as I could
from the people who use the product
to improve it.
[Sonderegger] At that time,
we had been doing a lot more testing,
we had been inviting people to the office
for social happy hours,
we were taking the product out and about.
In the beginning, we had one or two.
Now everyone had a couple of devices.
Pods were being made
and stockpiled in the back
for hopefully what would be
a tsunami of orders.
When it came time to start doing
the initial tastings and marketing,
I was working all day and going out,
sometimes until midnight,
back at the office at 8:00.
[Salta] We don't know where it's gonna
work yet, so we're gonna try everything.
We're gonna do movie theaters.
We're gonna do cafés.
We're gonna do boutiques, parties, clubs.
Clubs were the worst
because they were so loud,
and everyone was drunk.
You know, Plooms everywhere.
But we would set up in the back,
wait for people to come to us.
We would ask them what they think.
A lot of the comments
in the early days were,
"When are you coming out
with more flavors?"
There was a mint,
there was a chocolate one,
plus blueberry,
honey cognac, organic peach
and people specifically asked us
for these flavors.
It wasn't just about nicotine delivery,
it was about the experience,
so they were into flavors.
Flavors were important to ultimately
get smokers away from smoking,
with various options.
But people who were smokers who Ploomed
would say, "It's fun,
but it's not giving me the same hit
as I would with a big pull
from a cigarette."
[Sonderegger] The Ploom device itself
wasn't very good at delivering nicotine.
It didn't work for me.
I would tape two of them together,
sometimes at extreme displeasure of James,
because by taping two together,
it means his product isn't working.
For a hardcore Marlboro pack-a-day smoker,
they might try it, "Interesting,"
but they're gonna go back to smoking.
Kurt, Adam, and James
were constantly trying to fiddle with it.
Like, change up
the construction of the formula
so that it would be
a bit more turbocharged.
[Sonderegger] A lot of times, engineers,
they know so much about the product
that they don't understand
the pain points.
There were a lot of pain points
with the early Ploom device.
The number one was,
it's powered by butane,
so nobody's carrying around
a giant bottle of butane wherever they go.
Because it was an actual heating element,
there was a danger
of singeing your fingers,
sometimes your mouth
if you took a big hit from it.
It wasn't that every one of them was hot,
but every 50th one turned out
to burn somebody, right? It's too hot.
And with that kind of a yield,
2%, you don't have a product.
[Conley] It was unimpressive.
It was something that maybe
you could get a small market for
if you really dedicated yourself,
but it wasn't going to change the world.
[Sonderegger] I was going to smoke shops,
and I was getting quite a bit
of negative feedback there.
So, eventually, Adam came
to do a ride-along with me.
We went to five or six shops,
and I remember one time in particular,
when it finally, I think,
really hit home for Adam.
Instead of doing
the whole setup for the owner,
I just put it on the table.
The first thing he did was try
to put the butane in. It spilled out.
- He clicked it to start it
- [zapping]
and his finger was in the wrong spot
on the device, and he got a shock.
Eventually, he got it started,
put the pod in,
the top popped off,
and the pod burned his lip.
So it was the perfect storm
of everything that could have gone wrong,
did go wrong,
and Adam got to experience it.
I think when we walked out of that shop,
Adam came to the conclusion
that, "Shit, this product isn't working."
"We're gonna have to redesign it,
and it's gonna take somewhere
between a year and 18 months."
We were frustrated at that point that
we hadn't seen the progress we wanted,
and the buck has to stop someplace.
[Ducharme] James took over in
the CEO role, and Adam took a step back.
And it was kind of a crisis point
for this new company.
Ploom was starting to get low on funds
and struggling to get additional funds.
I thought, "It's probably all over.
It's a shame."
At this point, James was on the hunt for
any investor who could help Ploom succeed.
[Eschenbach] Japan Tobacco International
approached us to invest in Ploom.
$10 million.
JTI was this huge Japanese conglomerate
making cigarettes.
[Sonderegger] We were conflicted.
Again, Big Tobacco killing people
for almost 100 years and lying about it,
and they come in
with a significant investment.
It was difficult.
But without that investment,
I'm not sure we would have made it.
Our mission was really important.
We can't scrap it
and go to the next thing.
The goal of the company
was to save a billion lives.
James and Adam told me
that of all the Big Tobacco companies,
JTI was the most progressive,
and they seemed to be
the most open-minded.
It was a way to get more distribution
of a product that was gonna save lives.
[Sonderegger] My spine was softened,
so to speak.
If by partnering with Big Tobacco,
it helps you achieve your core mission,
maybe it's not the worst thing.
Japan Tobacco enabled them to expand,
so now you have the funds
to create your own playground.
What does that look like?
[Ducharme] After the Ploom device flopped,
Adam and James knew
they needed to make something better.
And the $10 million that they got from JTI
gave them the ability to take a step back
and go back to the drawing board.
[Sonderegger] So with that money,
they pivoted.
They didn't come out with
a new and improved version of the Ploom,
they came out with something called PAX.
The PAX was an induction vaporizer
for "loose-leaf" tobacco.
[Monsees] So this is PAX.
A pinch of pipe tobacco.
You can really unlock
the sort of excellence of tobacco.
Pretty awesome.
[Ducharme] PAX was supposed to vaporize
loose-leaf tobacco,
but it became popular with marijuana users
instead of tobacco users.
At that point, cannabis was becoming
more and more acceptable.
Even though it wasn't fully legal
in a lot of places,
it looked like a good opportunity.
[Erica Halverson] A friend,
he handed me this vaporizer
that had this little X thing
on the front of it.
Told me it was called a PAX.
It changed my world.
I made a decision right then
I was gonna work for this company.
The way that you smoke marijuana
is mostly complicated,
mostly bad, mostly inefficient.
PAX showed up and said,
"We'll make it easier."
Suddenly, you didn't have to have
a Ziploc bag with your weed in it.
Suddenly you didn't have to have
a match or a lighter.
You can just vape a little bit,
and you're done.
This is fantastic.
[Sonderegger] It was a beautiful product.
It worked really well.
It was something you want
to share with your friends.
It even had a game function,
so you could shake it up,
and it would go around
Like Spin the Bottle, whoever
it lands on would have to take a hit.
There was a lot of care in even choosing
who we had representing our product.
We collaborate with people
like The Weeknd or Broad City,
one of the coolest, most relatable
stoner shows on TV at that time.
It was really fun,
it was well-thought-out,
and it blew up really fast.
The PAX was very big.
I remember it was all over the city.
You saw people using it everywhere.
Every concert you went to,
you saw the little light.
I have a friend
who was a distributor for PAX,
and he was selling
as many as he could get.
[Eschenbach] It started outselling Ploom,
so Ploom dropped to the wayside
and PAX took over.
[Sonderegger] The PAX was
a phenomenal success.
Some people could have just said,
"Okay, we did great."
"Let's kick back,
enjoy the success for a while."
But there's a certain ceiling
in the cannabis space.
So, the venture capitalists
that would back this
were like, "Congratulations, guys."
"You have a successful product,
but that's not what we signed up for."
"We signed up for the big project."
"The project
to solve the smoking problem."
"The $90-billion-a-year project."
At the same time, Adam and James,
they still wanted to do
a revolutionary product
that delivered revolutionary results.
In this case, saving millions,
if not, possibly, a billion lives.
[Eschenbach] They still had that dream
and passion to solve
a critical health problem,
and PAX wouldn't be targeting that.
So I think that led
to the evolution of the JUUL.
[Pierce] In this "move fast
and break things" world of tech,
you should constantly
be cannibalizing your own ideas
and rethinking the way that things work,
all the time.
Look at something that seems good,
and say, "I bet this could be better."
We said, "We're going to
build something from scratch,
from the ground up."
That's really how we became JUUL.
As they went back to the drawing board,
James was focused
on the design side of a new device,
while Adam was more focused
on the science.
[Salta] For James, the design of it
was always number one.
"Let's make it look like
it came from San Francisco."
[Sonderegger] What they needed
to do was two things.
They needed to make it simple,
easy to use.
That was a problem in the vape industry.
Big devices, complicated,
people would try it,
and if it wasn't easy to use,
they'd put it down.
And the other side of the coin
was satisfying.
It had to be satisfying
pretty much from the get-go.
[Ducharme] While James focused
on the design side,
Adam was finding a way to deliver
enough nicotine to keep smokers satisfied.
There was something missing about
the products we had developed,
and the products on the marketplace.
You would vape them, smoke them,
and not get that sensation
of smoking a cigarette.
I knew this because
I was still smoking cigarettes.
[Dr. Proctor] Earlier generations
of so-called electronic cigarettes
used what's called freebase nicotine,
which was difficult to inhale.
[Dr. Jackler]
It had a bite in your throat.
What it did is it inhibited the ability
to raise the nicotine level up,
because it got too bitter.
[Ducharme] Adam was looking
for an answer to this question
of how to make the nicotine delivery
of his product equal that of a cigarette.
And he found what he was looking for
in cigarette industry research.
[Dr. Jackler] What they found is
if you conjugate nicotine
with a weak organic acid,
so-called salt nicotine,
that it tasted much softer.
It burned the throat less.
[Dr. Proctor] That overcame that harshness
of the traditional e-cigarette.
It's a kind of a chemical trickery
that allows the body's normal
defense mechanisms to be overcome,
and is very smooth
and goes down very easily.
[Ducharme] In the summer of 2013,
Adam brought on a chemist
named Chenyue Xing
to help with
the nicotine delivery problem.
The question was
what would be the right salt formulation.
[Pierce] When they started
doing the chemistry for JUUL,
it was a ramp-up. Incremental ramp-up.
[Ducharme] Adam and Chenyue
went outside of some of the protocols
in a typical research lab.
They would just recruit their co-workers
to test whatever they were working on.
[Chenyue Xing] It was called
"buzz testing",
it's a commonly-used term by smokers
to describe the nicotine head hit
that they feel.
[anonymous Ploom engineer] The test
was simple. Ten puffs in two minutes.
Around the fourth or fifth puff,
I would have to start tallying
because I'd hit a buzz so hard
I'd be like, "Where am I?"
Then I'd come back and be like,
"I'm done with number six."
The potency, I had never really felt
anything like that before
since high school,
when I tried my first cigarette.
Like a punch in the face, "Whoa."
It really opened our minds
to what was possible.
As soon as we tried nicotine salts,
we were like, "Boom."
"All right, we're done. This is it."
Now it was something
that could actually satisfy a smoker.
Adam discovered the secret sauce
to making it effective.
Everyone knew.
This is it. We crushed it.
[Andre Rougeau] At the 2014 holiday party,
it wasn't more than 25 of us in this room.
They got in front of us,
pulled out the JUUL and showed us.
[Sonderegger] Sleek little design,
no moving parts, no on/off button.
[Pierce] The shape of the pod
sort of told you how to insert it.
That simplicity, I was like,
"Everyone's gonna love this."
[Salta] Everybody was comparing it
to an Apple product.
"God. It's like an iPod,
except it's for a vape."
[Rougeau] There were smokers who hit it
and their eyes lit up.
Like, "We found it. This is great."
[Sonderegger] I knew
that it was significant
when I took the first couple of puffs
because the nicotine delivery was
far better than anything I'd tried.
To be honest, I not only got a head rush,
I almost vomited. It was that strong.
[Salta] I did have a pull off of it,
and I was like, "Damn."
The plume that came out of it
was so satisfying,
and exactly what I think anybody
who wants to vape wanted to feel.
[man] It was a home run.
[Dr. Proctor] It didn't look like
an object that might be abused.
It looked like a thumb drive.
And so, that was part
of the genius of the designers,
make something that not only delivered
a perfect level of nicotine to the brain,
but could be used almost anywhere.
And in that sense, it's the culmination
of this century-long effort
to produce a perfect engine of addiction.
[Pierce] I think JUUL
should have asked the question,
"If we make the greatest e-cig
in the world, is that a good idea?"
"Is that a thing
we should bring into the world?"
But once they decided to,
a lot of what happened after that
feels inevitable to me.
[reporter] E-cigarette use has skyrocketed
among America's youth.
An epidemic among adolescents.
[man] No one should
use vaping products, period.
You're nothing but a marketer of a poison.
[chanting] JUUL's getting richer
while people are getting sicker!
[closing theme music playing]
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