Between 2015, when a sleek and innovative nicotine delivery device known as Juul hit the market, and 2019, when that product was falsely implicated in a rash of lung injuries, its manufacturer’s reputation and financial potential plummeted. The four-part Netflix documentary Big Vape, based on Time correspondent Jamie Ducharme’s 2021 book of the same name, is a surprisingly evenhanded and fair-minded account of how that happened.
As even their critics concede, Adam Bowen and James Monsees, the former smokers who founded Juul Labs, were sincerely determined to do well by doing good, offering a potentially lifesaving alternative to combustible cigarettes. Their harm-reducing zeal was widely shared within the company, which helps explain the internal dismay at tobacco giant Altria’s 2018 investment in Juul.
In addition to the sin of collaborating with the enemy, Juul was charged with luring underage consumers by selling a cool, convenient, discreet, and addictive product in “kid-friendly” flavors, thereby triggering a youth vaping “epidemic.” But as Big Vape makes clear, the same features that appealed to teenagers also appealed to adults, including the smokers who had the most to gain from products like Juul.
The docuseries does a commendable job of presenting contrasting perspectives on the controversy over those products. We hear from anti-vaping agitators, but we also hear from harm reduction advocates. The latter include David Abrams, a tobacco control expert at New York University, who wisely counsels against sacrificing the health interests of adults in the name of protecting children.