‘Big Vape: The Rise And Fall Of Juul’ Explained: What Happened To James Monsees And Adam Bowen?


Among the many practices that human beings continue to indulge in despite knowing about the associated harmful effects, smoking is one of the primary ill-habits. Therefore, when technology was being offered as a savior from the harmful effects of cigarettes and electronic vaping machines were on the rise, it caused a stir in the industry. However, it also did not take very long for these alternatives to be deemed equally harmful, resulting in the failure of companies once hailed as the next big thing. Netflix’s new documentary series Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul charts the movement of the Juul company, which was genuinely being hailed as the new healthier alternative to smoking cigarettes. As mentioned in the title itself, the fall did not take much time after Juul’s meteoric rise, and the four-part documentary series tells this very story.

How Did Juul Start As A Company?

Like most other tech companies that have become global brands and those that have also failed into oblivion, Juul too began in California’s Silicon Valley. During their graduation course at Stanford University, batchmates Adam Bowen and James Monsees would often sneak out of the research facilities to have a smoke together. Both addicted to cigarettes, Adam and James were also very aware of the harmful effects of the habit. During that time, around 2003, cigarettes were also already considered a bad thing among younger generations, and so there was a social stigma against smoking out in public, and rightly so. But for smokers like the two young men in the context, it was not easy to let go of the habit or to even keep it in check sometimes.

It was predominantly from these thoughts that Adam and James decided to put technology to use in order to solve this problem, as technology was literally solving each problem in the world at the time. The two started to research possible ways in which the harmful effects of smoking could be avoided, and they came to the conclusion that the most toxic part of cigarettes was the combustion process. This referred to the stage when that tobacco was being burned inside the cigarette for smoke to be created, and this burning led to the worst of problems. In fact, the established tobacco companies, referred to as the Big Tobacco in the industry, had already done some research on the matter, and a viable alternative was found to be to somehow warm up the tobacco instead of putting it on fire.

Based on the belief and theory that the smoke created by the combustion was far more harmful than the addictive nicotine that was essentially being inhaled, Adam and James set out to make a prototype for a product that would simply warm up the tobacco to create smoke. Such a process could be done through vaporizer machines, and the two friends only had to fit it into a much smaller build. As they graduated from Stanford, Adam and James were determined about their goal—they wanted to turn their idea into a business. Although initially turned away by tech firms, mostly because of the stigma against smoking, the two did eventually find investors. Their claim, after all, was that they could significantly reduce the number of smokers in the country and help those who are willing to quit cigarettes but are unable to do so with the help of their electronic cigarettes. Along with the health benefit, there was also a large business angle to it, since smokers still constituted a large percentage of the population.

When the first prototype, called the Ploom, was made and ready for initial testing among survey groups, Adam and James did not really hit the golden profits they had been dreaming of. By this time, in the early 2010s, other competitors had already come into the market with vapes and e-cigarettes, and so Ploom had to differentiate themselves from the rest. With James Monsees’ degree in product design and his unwavering dedication to making a design that would truly make Ploom different from its competitors, a usable prototype was made. The item was sent out to parties, and promotional events were held in which people were asked to try out the products. All had one thing to say, though—Ploom was not nearly as effective in giving one nicotine rush as an actual cigarette is. People liked the fact that their smoke could now have different flavors and also did not have the bad smell of burnt tobacco, but it was still not an alternative to cigarettes.

How Did Juul Respond And Gain Its High Success?

Realizing that their most basic criteria were not being met, the two founders decided to go back to the drawing board and change things around. They eventually came up with the idea of adding nicotine salts inside the products, and this immediately increased the “hit” or “buzz” that smokers got after each puff from the e-cigarette. The product had also been redesigned and rebranded from Ploom to Pax, and with the right amount of nicotine effect this time around, it was sure to get more success. More unique and interesting flavors were also added, designed to be stored inside changeable pods that were to fit inside the vapes. Seeing the potential of the product, an established tobacco company named Japan Tobacco invested in the business.

Although the founders and employees had initially decided to never side with the Big Tobacco firms, with JTI’s involvement they changed their stance slightly. Pax was now convinced that the tobacco company’s help and efforts would help them reach their goal of helping smokers get rid of addiction, and so the deal was struck. Eventually, though, JTI also pulled away because the new Pax vape was being regularly used by buyers for marijuana as well, and the company wanted to stay away from this sector. But Adam and James really got the support to make their base strong during this time. A new product with an extremely sleek design was launched, and the company went through its final rebranding, turning into what remains as Juul. Along with the company, the new product was also named Juul, and now it was all about marketing it.

This is where Juul started to make the mistakes that it did, according to most commenters on the matter. The idea was to make the product appear elusive and stylish, almost like a lifestyle statement. Comparisons were directly drawn to brands like Apple, and Juul wanted to be similarly minimalist yet attractive. It was not just about people buying and using the Juul vape, but also about them flaunting the product on social media. Since social media platforms were very popular by this time and the practice of digitally showing off was also common, Juul’s sales took off once the product became popular.

Unfortunately for society and also for the company, most of these buyers were teenagers and minors who were not really supposed to vape. The FDA had not yet started to regulate vapes, though, which meant that those under 18 were not technically barred from buying the products. Teenagers were easily getting their hands on the vaping machines, and the sleek and slender designs of them ensured that hardly anyone found out about them vaping. As mentioned by the numerous users of Juul that the Netflix documentary brings to the screen, it was almost like the new cool thing to do—to vape from the specific Juul devices. It was, like the founders and the marketing heads had wanted, just like owning Apple products, except in this case, the product was actually harmful.

While the debate with regards to whether vapes are any less harmful than cigarettes is still ongoing, there are certain points on both sides that are to be mentioned. Surely, the eradication of the combustion process reduces the smoke, the smell, and the harmful characteristics of cigarettes, but it does not take away from the effects of nicotine. In fact, studies later revealed that people using vapes were inhaling nicotine in much larger amounts than cigarette smokers. This was very directly linked to the fact that smoking a cigarette as a recreational or relaxing activity mostly involves smoking one entire cigarette before going back to one’s schedule. However, the only such “end point,” like the burning away of the entire cigarette in the case of vapes, is when the cartridge or pod containing the tobacco ends. In statistical terms, finishing an entire pod is equivalent to smoking away an entire pack of cigarettes.

Especially with regard to minors and teenagers, the real effects of the vape machine were not really advertised as much. Most believed that they were just smoking water-based fumes, which was surely not harmful to their bodies. By the time the matter turned into a vaping epidemic across the United States, it was noticed that the number of vape users, especially among minors, had hugely increased. While the habit of smoking had greatly decreased among teenagers and minors as compared to previous generations, the sudden emergence of brands like Juul, which placed themselves almost as lifestyle products, once again brought youngsters back to the habit of nicotine addiction.

Even the publicity and marketing that the company used were heavily criticized, owing to the fact that they greatly resembled advertisements for old Big Tobacco practices. The Big Tobacco companies always knew that targeting teenagers would ensure life-long sales for them, as most would be unable to get off the addiction, and Juul had done a similar targeting. Although the founders, Adam Bowen and James Monseens, claimed that such a coincidence was definitely not their plan, it surely did harm the company a lot, or at least, their vision of what Juul was supposed to be.

What Happened To James Monsess and Adam Bowen?

Following the controversy with regards to the teenage vaping epidemic, in which numerous teenagers were admitted to hospitals, some even losing their lives, because of the effects of vaping, Juul tried many tactics to change its ways. They added more technology to ensure that only adults could purchase and use their products, but such safekeeping measures failed to stop teenagers from getting their hands on the vape machines. Eventually, common people, and especially parents, started protesting against the company and their product, directly calling out the start-up as evil.

To make matters worse, the very enemy that the company had sought to fight against—the big tobacco companies—soon came in with a large investment. Altria, one of the world’s leading tobacco corporations, wanted to buy a portion of Juul, and the deal did happen as well. Although Adam and James still kept claiming that they were aiming to do good by taking money from the Big Tobacco firms, critics claimed that this was essentially Altria just adding e-cigarettes to their product shelves along with their more popular products like Marlboro cigarettes. When Altria came on board, many employees considered leaving the company since the investors were mostly seen as a business built on vices, but James Monsess still managed to convince them to stay.

It was really the growing sickness among teenagers who vaped that led to the downfall of Juul as the company and brand that it had sought to be. Multiple lawsuits from different American states followed, and under the pressure of the situation, both James Monsess and Adam Bowen resigned and moved away from the company they had founded. In their place, Altria placed a new CEO, who had been a tobacco company executive, and this also resulted in a lot of the employees leaving their jobs. Many supporters still claim that vaping and products like Juul have helped them get rid of their cigarette addiction, and as responsible adults, they continue to stand by these businesses. However, there is also the fact that, along with doing good to some adults, Juul and vapes have been doing significantly more damage to teenagers and minors. Juul does still exist to this day, under the ownership of Altria, but its worth and financial figures have largely dropped, also owing to the ban on vaping in some states of the USA and also globally in some countries.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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