Review of First Three Comprehensive Works Analyzing the Role of the Company in Creating the Youth Nicotine Epidemic Driven by JUUL.
Authored by: R.K. Jackler, Stanford University School of Medicine
Three new exposés on the JUUL nicotine epidemic among American Youth are being released in late May. These include Lauren Etter’s The Devil’s Playbook: Big Tobacco, Juul, and the Addiction of a New Generation (Penguin Random House), Jamie Ducharme’s Big Vape: The Incendiary rise of JUUL (Henry Holt and Co.), and Laure Beil’s The Vaping Fix a 6 part audio documentary (Wondery). The works were created by three talented investigative journalists who focus on health and science for their respective publications. Etter is a reporter at Bloomberg News, Ducharme is a health and science staff writer at Time, and Beil produces a series of podcasts for Wondery. Each communicates a richly detailed narrative tracing the trajectory of JUUL from its roots as a concept by two Stanford graduate students engaged in a product design curriculum, through its meteoric rise, and precipitous fall.
All three construct narratives which mirror those of the 1970’s Watergate investigations: What did the company know, when did they know it, and once the youth craze for JUUL was obvious, what did they do about it. Tracing the company from its idealistic beginnings with aspirations to disrupt big tobacco by obsoleting cigarettes, through its viral popularity among teens, its seeming incongruous partnership with Altria (maker of the world’s leading cigarette brand Marlboro), and its current devolution under the crushing weight of intense regulatory scrutiny and an avalanche of lawsuits. All three works knit compelling narratives explaining acts of commission and omission by JUUL leadership which led to the brand’s viral uptake among American middle and high school students.
Each writer constructed their narrative from numerous interviews supplemented by insights gleaned from publicly available legal complaints. Each make heavy use of anonymous sources, especially “former JUUL employees,” who are constrained in revealing their identify by JUUL’s ubiquitous use of non-disclosure agreements. Although often quoted from their public utterances, neither co-founders James Monsees and Adam Bowen nor members of the JUUL Board agreed to be interviewed. In addition to relating the JUUL story, Etter’s book includes a fascinating and well researched insight into the machinations within Altria as they considered a JUUL investment and suffered its aftermath.
I found both books to be compelling and well written - absorbing narratives as captivating as John Carryrou’s 2018 celebrated exposé of Theranos (Bad Blood). Beil’s polished Wondery audio documentary, which highlights interviews with parents and teens hooked on nicotine via JUUL, nicely compliments Ducharme’s and Etter’s works. The timing of the release of these three works is fortuitous as the first of many state attorney generals’ JUUL case (North Carolina) goes to trial in June. Up until now, only part of the story has been told. Soon a vast trove of internal company documents may become public and will further bring to light how the company prioritized windfall profits over the health of its youthful consumers.
It can only be hoped that these three excellent works, which so capably articulate the story of JUUL’s misdeeds, will help to spur much needed legislation and regulation to corral the excesses of the vaping industry.
Disclosure: Dr. Jackler is founder and principal investigator of the research group Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising and serves an expert witness in litigation brought by attorney generals against JUUL.