Tuesday, March 5, 2024

What we lost when vaping got political


It is easy to forget now, given the speed with which we grew accustomed to the sight of our fellow citizens noisily dragging on devices that wouldn’t have been out of place on the set of Dune, but it was only in 2015 that Juul cracked the code on the unembarrassing electronic cigarette. Juul’s sleek, USB-like design swiped away memories of earlier vapes, which were often clumsy metal representations of the real thing. The Juul was charged via computer port, giving it the feel of a well-polished Apple product appearing in your life to alleviate your anxiety (anxiety being the issue many smokers know is at the heart of their addiction). It was the gadget of smokers’ dreams, and for creating it, cofounders James Monsees and Adam Bowen were handsomely rewarded: Juul reached “decacorn status”—a $10 billion valuation—quicker than any company in Silicon Valley history.

But Juul’s rapid ubiquity and rise to such tech-sector heights belied the small matter of its status with federal regulators. As it turns out, the devices have never been officially approved for use in the United States. For more than a decade, the FDA has punted the decision about whether e-cigarettes are a public health boon, leaving Americans to decide for themselves if vapes are a godsend with the potential to save the lives of millions of smokers—or the worst newfangled tech product to come along since the Zune (with the unfortunate side effect of potentially killing you). The FDA said it would weigh in when it had more information. Finally, in October, the agency granted word from on high that one favored e-cigarette could be sold in the U.S. It wasn’t a Juul.

Few who observed this fight were surprised by this outcome. For the past few years, Juul has been locked in a vicious battle with regulators, school districts, and states. To these antagonists, Juul is an immoral company that prized making billions over deep attention to the moral question at the heart of its controversial product: Is it worth saving the lives of some number of adult smokers by having Juul on the market if the price is nicotine addiction in young people, some number of whom will inevitably move on to combustible cigarettes and hasten their death? As the early leader in the space, Juul has traveled a bumpy path, drawing as much scrutiny as the Trump White House could muster and becoming yet another Silicon Valley cautionary tale along the way. (An FX–New York Times docuseries about the company’s rise last fall was titled Move Fast & Vape Things.)

Juul once had 75 percent of the vaping market share in the U.S. and was down to 42 percent last year, but the FDA-approved e-cigarette, R.J. Reynolds’s Vuse Solo Power Unit, is far less popular. The agency, it would appear, would never give Juul the satisfaction of being the first vape in America to attain authorization to market—it would rather let Juul twist a bit longer in the wind. So what exactly happened to the onetime darling? How did we go from “Dude, Where’s My Juul” and scrambling for lost Juul pods under the seats of our cars to regarding the company as the evil empire? And will we ever go back to a time when Juuling was a verb, like googling, or will it be forever thought of as an unfortunate cultural moment on par with the Tide Pod challenge?

Vaping works by extracting nicotine from tobacco and turning it into a smokable liquid without setting it on fire. It’s not nicotine that is toxic but the tar and chemicals that come from combusting tobacco by lighting a cigarette. Half of the world’s 1 billion smokers will die of smoking-related illnesses, making cigarettes arguably the most dangerous consumer product on the globe. But only Juul figured out how to make vapes so potent that they would satisfy smokers; earlier rivals had exponentially less powerful blends of nicotine.

The company had an elite pedigree: Monsees and Bowen created an early version of Juul as their product design master thesis at Stanford. They had a recombinant vision of marrying the tech and tobacco worlds, making both more humane and ethical, and spoke often about how Juul and its crème brûlée–flavored vapor would save lives by satisfying nicotine cravings, yet not hastening one’s demise. Identifying a big, sweeping idea during our late age of tech, when VCs are more likely to be inundated with investment requests from companies delivering hamburgers than a humanity-saving piece of machinery, was a big deal. Three years after they founded the company, Monsees and Bowen sold 35 percent of Juul to Altria, the company formerly known as Philip Morris Companies, for nearly $13 billion.

But there was one large, potentially humanity-destroying problem: In order to make Juul as appealing to smokers as possible, and by that I mean delivering a nice buzz and head rush, Juul upped the percentage of nicotine in each vape over the potency of e-cigarettes authorized for sale in Europe, not a continent known for its lack of devotion to smoking. This head-buzzy Juul was pleasurable but also insanely addictive. And it proved to be a hit not only with smokers, the group of people Juul claimed it was trying to save, but also with a group of people known for chasing head buzzes, namely teenagers.

Youth smoking has been on the decline since the 1990s (that was its peak in the U.S., with 36.4 percent of teens reporting they smoked the previous month in 1997). This victory is one of the few bright spots in America’s otherwise sad public health regimen (obesity and alcoholism come to mind). Most of the country’s 34 million smokers are Gen X or older. Today the habit doesn’t only stain teeth, wrinkle lips, and age the face; now you look older just because you do it.

But Juul destabilized this progress, turning an estimated 6 million American youths into nicotine fiends, according to Robert Jackler, a Stanford professor and key anti-vaping advocate. “Left on the bedside table of a teenager, a parent wouldn’t recognize it as a smoking device, and they became a thing for kids, like Beanie Babies, Hula-Hoops, or fidget spinners,” says Jackler. “Juul could never have designed such a big fad, because no company could engineer that, but once it happened, they knew about it, and here’s the rub—they went after it. And it succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.”

Juul violated a sacrosanct principle—do not market vices to American kids, or at least don’t be so obvious about it. Around 2018, when some Americans started acquiring lung diseases from vaping, journalists and politicians pointed the finger at Juul, even though the people who fell sick were actually smoking marijuana that had been laced with a chemical that black market purveyors use as a thickening agent. During the Trump administration, Juul’s most popular vapes, the ones with flavors, were pulled off the market. Juul hadn’t created mango-tasting vapes expressly to attract teenagers—an industry survey showed more than 90 percent of vape users prefer flavors to tobacco-flavored nicotine, which is right up there with durian on the list of world’s worst tastes—but the fact that adults also favor flavored vapes was considered beside the point.

Even if the company was dumb and greedy—and I think there is evidence to this effect—it paid a high price for being the prime mover in the e-cigarette revolution. By 2020, Altria was massively writing down its investment in Juul, because the company could not function in the current U.S. regulatory environment. But if you think about smoking as a larger public health problem, it’s also possible that Juul kick-started the important process of moving Americans to e-cigarettes—one that now needs to be finished.

The Biden administration seems to be thinking about how to move more smokers to vapes. They’re working on a plan to decrease the potency of nicotine in smokable cigarettes, to push Americans toward every type of e-cigarette. Vaping isn’t completely without risks, at least we don’t think it is; addiction to nicotine can warp adolescent brains in a state of plasticity, and some data suggests a link between vaping and asthma, chronic lung disease, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in “dual users” (people who vape and also smoke cigarettes).

In the rest of the world, many nations may have less incentive to help citizens get off cigarettes, because they gather high taxes for their coffers from the products. China has effectively outlawed e-cigarettes. Indonesia is weighing a ban. In the Philippines, you can be arrested for vaping in public. America has a second chance, with the FDA’s new approval of at least one e-cigarette, to do vaping right—and this time focus more deeply on the best way to truly save lives in the process.

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