That fact was abundantly clear this summer: In mid-July, as the vape giant set out on a sort of public-relations tour to quell criticism about skyrocketing addiction to e-cigarettes among teenagers, CNBC released a documentary featuring the company’s then-CEO, Kevin Burns. Wearing a plastic headcover and sanitary gloves, Burns took a journalist on a tour of JUUL’s facilities, as he apologized on behalf of his employer for what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has called an “epidemic of youth e-cigarette use.” This was only a month or so before the spate of vaping-related illnesses would spike in the United States, and long before the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would determine that most of those cases are likely linked to vitamin E acetate, a compound that’s sometimes found in illicit THC cartridges (and not JUUL pods).
Since then, the national debate about e-cigarettes has increasingly reflected the absurdity of America’s current political moment. There are officials and lawmakers who want to resort, yet again, to prohibition-like tactics to combat the ubiquity of flavored vaping products. There are small business owners and lower-middle class workers and users fighting to save their livelihoods and, some would argue, their very lives. And there is a regulatory framework, or lack thereof, that has been easily disrupted by technocrats and Big Tobacco alike.
There hasn’t yet been, though, an attempt to synthesize all of these nuanced elements and contradictions into a single, simplified, and coherent tale that might reach the same people JUUL products appeared to attract in mass media culture. The “Big Vape” episode of Broken, Netflix’s new four-part series about the not-lived-up-to promises and adverse effects of commodity culture, is clearly aiming to do that. There will surely be more forms of entertainment media that delve into JUUL—scripted television shows, biopics, human-interest-style podcasts—given its rapid rise into the very fabric of youth lifestyles. But, at the moment, Broken is the best we have, and its primary through-line is less about placing blame on a group of people (JUUL, inept politicians, helpless moms and dads) and more about showing how America’s consumer-driven society led us to where we are.
It’s an obvious conclusion to reach, but one worth emphasizing: This is a story about capitalism, and specifically Instagram-era commerce. The clearest way to analyze what has happened, as Broken reveals, is that JUUL propelled vaping—a once niche, cloud-chasing subculture that had been confined to conference rooms in casinos—into the mainstream. Meaning that even though it might not have been intended, as a product, to renormalize nicotine in American life, it did. The aftermath of that has seen two distinct perspectives emerge: those who have long sought to have a world totally without nicotine, and those more harm-reduction-minded individuals who tend to think that civilization is much too far gone to get rid of it entirely.
Are you a current or former JUUL employee, or do you know something about the company or vaping industry that we should? Using a non-work device, you can contact Alex Norcia securely via Signal at 201-429-7024 or email at email@example.com.
Broken doesn’t land on one side, but it’s a relatively fair and comprehensive overview, particularly for a viewer who doesn’t know much about vaping and how it’s recently taken a turn for the worse in the U.S. The documentary opens in Milford, Connecticut, with a 17-year-old high school senior, Bella Carroll, brushing her hair and talking to a girl off camera, presumably her sister, about their laundry. As the young woman drives to school, upbeat piano music plays, and a narrator alludes that all is not well for her. She seems normal, except for the fact that she is addicted to e-cigarettes, as are several of her friends. Her explanation has become a typical one: that she and her pals tried one at the behest of another student; that, by their estimates, up to 70 percent of the student body was frequently vaping; and that it had taken off on popular platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.
One couldn’t help fear that this would be a kind of Intervention-esque format—that we would watch as an otherwise perfectly healthy minor struggles to kick a habit she didn’t realize she would develop in the first place. And missed opportunities certainly do abound. There’s no discussion, for instance, about how these teenagers under 18 are obtaining JUULs and other vaping products, or any real acknowledgement that they live in a predominantly white and wealthy suburb not far from New York City, or a single comment from their parents.
But the show packs a lot into 60 minutes, as we travel to Hong Kong, where Hon Lik, an engineer based in Hong Kong who has been credited with inventing the modern e-cigarette, displays his initial breakthrough; Las Vegas, where we follow Kurt Sonderegger, the JUUL founders’ first employee and the head of marketing at Ploom, the brand that predated JUUL, as he attends a vape expo; San Francisco, where we hear from a media-trained and robotic-sounding JUUL co-founder, Adam Bowen; and Switzerland, into a lab run by Philip Morris International, where Serge Maeder, the director of product research, notes the importance of embracing technology. Broken, however, always returns to Bella Carroll’s high school, reminding the audience that all these events—and the labor, progress, and mistakes—have landed us here: with their principal, in his office, dumping out confiscated JUULs from a manila envelope. Like the precious stone it’s named after, the JUUL is hard to find, the principal admits. They’re notoriously convenient, and, therefore, not difficult to conceal.
But at least until public scrutiny pushed the company to pull more and more flavors off the shelves, vape products have also been incredibly easy to buy. And while the FDA could decline to give JUUL and other vape manufacturers its stamp of approval when applications for the government’s blessing are finally set to be filed next year, it’s hard to imagine e-cig products disappearing in any meaningful way. As harm-reduction advocates always note, the black market tends to feed the demand created by government crackdowns on supplies of drugs, dangerous or otherwise.
If you’re looking for answers, Broken isn’t going to give you any. Like any other shopper, you’re going to have to decide on your own.
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