Backfired: The Vaping Wars

ROMAN MARS: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. For decades, people have been trying to figure out how to create a cigarette without many of the downsides–you know, the things that make smoking the biggest cause of preventable death in America–the tar, the carcinogens, and all that stuff. Cigarette companies tried to create “safe” combustion-free smoking devices as far back as the 1980s. They were all huge flops. Then in the 2000s, e-cigarettes first hit the market. These early models looked almost like cigarettes, but they gave themselves away in subtle ways. If you looked really closely, you could see that they were made of plastic or metal and they had a little glowing light on the tip meant to resemble the cherry at the end of a lit cigarette. Or you might remember the big, clunky vaporizers that resembled walkie talkies and required users to tinker with battery coils and pour so-called e-liquid into them by hand. None of these ended up breaking into the mainstream until, in 2015, a company called Juul Labs rolled out a new nicotine vape that caught fire, both with adult smokers, who use them to kick their old fashioned smoking habit, and with young people–children–who just thought they were cool. The Juul became a phenomenon not strictly speaking as a smoking cessation device but as an entirely new habit: Juul. In addition to limiting some of the harm of smoking, it seemed to threaten an entire generation with nicotine addiction. The new podcast Backfired: The Vaping Wars dives into the stories behind the Juul’s success and its failures. Listening to the show, it’s clear that what began as an arguably promising innovation in harm reduction inspired a backlash that in turn opened the door to a veritable wild west of vaping products. Today we’re going to present you with the first episode, in which hosts Leon Neyfakh and Arielle Pardes track how Juul’s founders figured out that the right combination of chemistry and design could unlock their product’s potential and enhance its addictive qualities. It’s really fascinating stuff. Check it out.

LEON NEYFAKH: One afternoon last fall, I sent a Slack message to Arielle Pardes, my co-host on this podcast. I needed to tell her something.

ARIELLE PARDES: I feel nervous because every time a conversation starts with “I need to tell you something…”

LEON NEYFAKH: It’s not good?

ARIELLE PARDES: Generally not good, but this one could be good. I don’t know. I’m going to remain optimistic.

LEON NEYFAKH: Arielle and I had spent months reporting on vaping, trying to figure out how it had gone from a niche hobby to a billion-dollar industry in the space of just a decade. And the entire time we were doing this, I was also trying to quit vaping myself and telling Ariel about it… sometimes. Yesterday when we were recording… And we can probably play this clip because I’m pretty sure we were rolling.


LEON NEYFAKH: At one point you were like…

ARIELLE PARDES (TAPE): Leon, was that a vape?


ARIELLE PARDES (TAPE): That did really sound like a vape.

 LEON NEYFAKH (TAPE): I don’t vape anymore.

ARIELLE PARDES (TAPE): What was that sound?

 LEON NEYFAKH (TAPE): I don’t know! Yeah, I was on my phone for a second.

ARIELLE PARDES (TAPE): Don’t lie to us, Leon. I’ve got it on tape.

 LEON NEYFAKH (TAPE): I’m not lying. The phone makes a weird sound sometimes.

LEON NEYFAKH: I just flatly lied, being like, “It’s not.” And we moved on, but it was a vape.

ARIELLE PARDES: Why did you lie?

LEON NEYFAKH: I really thought it was going to be my own little secret until I threw it away later in the day. And if literally only I knew, it would be like it never happened. And that’s why I lied.

ARIELLE PARDES: But it’s literally on tape. We all knew it happened, and now there’s concrete proof of it. Damn. Damn. Well, thank you for your delayed honesty and–

LEON NEYFAKH: Sorry I lied. Sorry I lied to you.

ARIELLE PARDES: I forgive you.

LEON NEYFAKH: A few years ago, there was really only one vaping product that I and everyone else I knew was using: the Juul. In fact, that’s what I thought we’d be making this podcast about: Juul. But once we dug into it, we discovered there are now literally thousands of vape brands on the market in flavors like Luscious Lemon and Watermelon Ice and Cheesecake. You know the Cambrian explosion that’s responsible for all the world’s biodiversity? That’s kind of where we’re at with nicotine vapes right now, and I unfortunately have sampled a lot of them. I’ve tried the Air Bar, I’ve tried Elf Bars, I’ve tried Esco Bars, I’ve tried MYLÉS, and I like them. I hate how much I like them, and I hate how hard it is for me to stop using them. I bought one this morning.

ARIELLE PARDES: Why did you buy an Air Bar this morning?

LEON NEYFAKH: Because my Air Bar died last night.

ARIELLE PARDES: You know that’s not what I meant. Watching Leon grapple with his addiction was pretty eye-opening for me. I didn’t grow up around anyone who smoked cigarettes. And as an adult in the Bay Area, I didn’t know many people who vaped either. In fact, in 2019 I voted to ban the sale of nicotine vapes in San Francisco. They just seemed obviously bad. So, when we started working on this podcast, I wondered if our reporting would change my mind.

LEON NEYFAKH: My feelings about vaping were complicated. When I was growing up, both of my parents smoked cigarettes. And I picked up the habit when I got to college. Then during my senior year, my dad died of lung cancer. He was just 47 years old. And yet even after that, I had a really hard time quitting. I tried nicotine patches and gum and even hypnosis, and nothing ever stuck until I discovered the Juul. And honestly, it was a godsend. If I had a Juul in my pocket, I just didn’t smoke cigarettes or even think about them. But at the same time, because I jeweled all day–including inside at my desk–I became way more addicted to nicotine than I ever was as a smoker.

ARIELLE PARDES: All of this is why when we first started our reporting, we weren’t sure how to feel about Juul and all of the vape companies that have come since. Were they saving people’s lives or profiting off of their weaknesses?

LEON NEYFAKH: It’s safe to say we’ve both been shocked by what we’ve learned as we’ve spent the past year trying to get to the bottom of who is winning and who is losing what we’ve come to think of as the Vaping Wars.

ARIELLE PARDES: Because it’s not just one war. There’s the war for dominance in the market.

CLIP #1: Send the logo and the flavor you want and these Chinese manufacturers will send you tens of thousands of them…

CLIP #2: Juul is, like, not cool anymore. It’s the Puff Bar…

CLIP #3: Elf Bar and Esco Bar have not received FDA authorization…

CLIP #4: Thousands of unauthorized vapes are pouring into the United States from China. It’s almost like we just can’t stop this…

CLIP #5: We are at the cusp of something that could be a catastrophe.

LEON NEYFAKH: And there’s also a war between two bitterly opposed camps–one focused on preventing a new generation from getting addicted to nicotine.

BITTERLY OPPOSED CAMP #1: They came into a kid’s school. This is predatory behavior.

ARIELLE PARDES: And the other focused on the potential of vapes to save millions of lives.

BITTERLY OPPOSED CAMP #2: First puff, I knew that I was going to quit smoking.

LEON NEYFAKH: But before all that, there was first Juul’s war on Big Tobacco, which began at Stanford University before the first vape had even hit the market.

ARIELLE PARDES: That’s where we’re going to begin our story: two decades ago when two graduate students in a design program came up with what seemed like a simple solution to the problem of cigarettes.

LORENZO CASTILLO: I remember being like, this is it. This is the dream.

ARIELLE PARDES: I’m Arielle Pardes. I’ve been a reporter covering Silicon Valley for publications like Wired and The Information for the last eight years.

LEON NEYFAKH: And I’m Leon Neyfakh, host of the podcast Fiasco and the co-creator of Slow Burn.

ARIELLE PARDES: From Audible Originals and Prologue Projects, this is Backfired, a podcast about the business of unintended consequences.

LEON NEYFAKH: Episode One: Smoking Gun. In January of 2015, a thirtysomething entrepreneur named James Monsees sat down for an interview with a journalist. It was just a few months before the Juul would be released.

JAMES MONSEES: Adam and I started this in grad school and at Stanford. We didn’t really have a hard set goal on starting a company out of it.

LEON NEYFAKH: The past decade had been a struggle, but Monsees felt like the company he had co-founded with his classmate, Adam Bowen, was finally on the cusp of revolutionizing the world of nicotine. So, he was ready to tell their origin story.

JAMES MONSEES: So, you wanted to start at the beginning? Okay, that’s easy if I can remember it now. It’s been so long. I’m just kidding. It’s permanently ingrained in my mind.

LEON NEYFAKH: Bowen and Monsees had met over a decade earlier in 2003 when they were both enrolled in a master’s program at Stanford. The program was a mix of art, mechanical engineering, and industrial design.

JAMES MONSEES: Traditionally, 90% or so of the people that came out of the program would start companies.

LIZ GERBER: People who showed up in this program weren’t just in grad school to be in grad school. They were on a mission.

LEON NEYFAKH: This is Liz Gerber. She attended the program around the same time as Bowen and Monsees.

LIZ GERBER: People were talking about the power of technology–the potential of connecting people. The discussion about unintended consequences in the product design world was minimal.

LEON NEYFAKH: Just to place you in this moment in time, 2003 was the year MySpace debuted, Apple introduced the iTunes music store, and WordPress helped kick off the blogging era.

LIZ GERBER: We were doing things in a different way at that time. Anything felt possible, and it wasn’t commercially driven. It was really let’s envision the future in which we want to live.

LEON NEYFAKH: As she hung around Stanford’s campus, Gerber became friendly with Bowen and Monsees. She watched that the two started to tinker with various product ideas in the school’s legendary design lab–ideas like furniture that could be molded into different shapes as well as high tech business cards that would transmit your information with a single tap. But Gerber remembers that it wasn’t just their work that made Bowen and Monsees stand out.

LIZ GERBER: Everybody knew each other, but the smokers definitely knew each other. There were about four students who regularly smoked.

LEON NEYFAKH: By 2003, smoking rates among young people were in free fall. I remember being very much in the minority in college when I would smoke outside of our dorm. Bowen and Monsees experienced much the same thing.

LIZ GERBER: I remember I once took them to task for smoking right outside the door. I was like, “Hey guys, this is the way I get in. This is the way everybody has to get in. Fine–smoke. But smoke somewhere away from where everybody has to come in and out of the door.”

LEON NEYFAKH: Monsees in particular felt shame over his smoking. His grandfather, a smoker, had died from lung cancer. And growing up, Monsees mom taught him to hate cigarettes, and yet he’d picked up the habit anyway. Then one day, he was having a cigarette with Bowen outside the design lab, and a light bulb went off.

JAMES MONSEES: We just kind of looked at each other and thought, “You know, this would be a really interesting space to look at and then the safety and shelter of academia. Why not look at something that’s a huge opportunity and a huge sort of social problem?”

LEON NEYFAKH: What they realized was that there were a lot of smokers who wanted to quit, and no one had come up with a truly effective way to help them do it. Bowen and Monsees decided this was the problem they wanted to focus on in their master’s thesis, so they got to work researching their idea. That was when they discovered a number of earlier attempts by Big Tobacco companies to create a safer cigarette. Among them was the Premier, which R.J. Reynolds released in 1988.

NEWSCASTER: Premier is the premiere of a cigarette which heats tobacco rather than burns it, thus eliminating most of the smoke, much of the odor, and all of the ash.

LEON NEYFAKH: Under the codename “Project Spa,” R.J. Reynolds spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing the device. The big innovation behind it was that it heated tobacco instead of burning it, thereby removing the most dangerous part of smoking: the combustion that creates tar. Still, Reynolds was careful not to say that the Premier was safer–just that it was cleaner.

R.J. REYNOLDS: We’ve substantially reduced many of the controversial compounds found in the smoke of tobacco-burning cigarettes, virtually eliminated sidestream smoke… No ash. There is a cleaner taste. It is a different taste.

LEON NEYFAKH: But that different taste wasn’t a hit with early users.

EARLY USER: It doesn’t taste like you’re smoking tobacco. It tastes like you’re smoking plastic.

LEON NEYFAKH: Reynolds gave up on the Premier after a short test period. But as Bowen and Monsees found out, that was not the end of Big Tobacco’s efforts to create a safer cigarette. In 1998, Philip Morris released the Accord.

PHILIP MORRIS: Accord is really a smoking system. It includes what would appear to be a traditional cigarette that is inserted into a special lighter. The lighter has sensors in it. And when you take a puff, it burns the tobacco in the cigarette.

LEON NEYFAKH: Like the Premier, the Accord was designed to vaporize tobacco leaves by gently heating them, which was supposed to prevent users from inhaling deadly chemicals. But also like the Premier, the Accord tasted bad and failed to take off with customers. The timing was also not great. As it happened, the Accord was released just as Philip Morris, along with several other Big Tobacco companies, agreed to pay billions of dollars in a court ordered settlement.

BILL CLINTON: This settlement is clearly an important step in the right direction for our country. It reflects the first time tobacco companies will be held financially accountable for the damage their product does to our nation’s health and the long struggle to protect our children from tobacco.

LEON NEYFAKH: As part of the settlement, tobacco companies were forced to make millions of internal documents public, including some that showed they had lied about the health risks of smoking. This database was released just two years before Bowen and Monsees had their revelation outside the Stanford Design Lab. In fact, it’s where they found out about all the early failed attempts at safer cigarettes. Now, they could use Big Tobacco’s research to beat them at their own game.

JAMES MONSEES: We got so much information that they wouldn’t be able to get in most industries. And we were able to catch up to a huge industry in no time.

LEON NEYFAKH: Soon, Bowen and Monsees started working on a prototype. The key innovation they were keen to tinker with was this idea that if you heat tobacco leaves at a lower temperature instead of burning them, you can still get nicotine but without the deadly tar that leads to lung cancer. The question was how to design a device that could do that in a way that was portable, satisfying for smokers, and hopefully cool to look at. It turned out to be a much bigger challenge than Bowen and Monsees had anticipated. By June of 2005, Bowen and Monsees were ready to present their thesis idea to their classmates. It would hopefully be the first step towards securing potential funding and turning their product into something more than just a good idea. Monsees introduced the device, which they were now calling “Plume: the Rational Future of Smoking.”

JAMES MONSEES: So, the name was “Solace.” It’s now “Plume”–at least temporarily.

LEON NEYFAKH: Monsees quickly ran through what he and Bowen had discovered about Big Tobacco’s attempts to make a less deadly cigarette and explained why he thought all of them were pretty lame.

JAMES MONSEES: Really, there’s no design innovation going on in smoking whatsoever because Big Tobacco is really interested in not shooting themselves in their own foot. They sell cigarettes, and that’s pretty much what they do.

LEON NEYFAKH: Then it was Bowen’s turn to speak. He made the case for why the Plume would be different.

ADAM BOWEN: So, our goal was to basically create a whole new experience for people that retains the positive aspects of smoking, like the ritual and everything, but makes it as healthy and socially acceptable as possible.

LEON NEYFAKH: “Healthy and socially acceptable.” The Plume wouldn’t be smelly like a cigarette, nor would it raise the ire of classmates like Liz Gerber. Instead, it would be safe and maybe even cool.

ADAM BOWEN: We feel that we could take tobacco back to being a luxury good and not so much a sort of drug delivery device that the cigarettes have become…

LEON NEYFAKH: The Plume looked nothing like existing tobacco products. It was sleek, it had a cartridge system that Bowen compared to the Nespresso, and it came in a variety of flavors. When the presentation was over, the room lit up with applause.

LIZ GERBER: They had some beautiful drawings. I remember the look of it being very attractive.

LEON NEYFAKH: To Liz Gerber, the Plume didn’t just look good. There was almost something romantic about it.

LIZ GERBER: I also thought the name “Plume” sounded really beautiful. It made me think of, like, the 1920s flappers with the long cigarettes and the wavy smoke coming out, and it kind of had this elegant association. I remember also thinking about unintended consequences. What if, in addition to helping people quit and reducing secondhand smoke, it also makes smoking sexier?

ARIELLE PARDES: After graduating, Bowen and Monsees worked on the Plume from a small room in Bowen’s house. Their first challenge was to build the device. But in order to do that, they needed money. The problem was a lot of big venture capital funds were prohibited from investing in the vice space, which included drugs, alcohol, and even supposedly safe cigarettes. So, after getting a few rejections, Bowen and Monsees sent a plea to a Stanford email list. Eventually, a few angel investors agreed to take a chance on the company. By the spring of 2007, Plume raised nearly half a million dollars. And finally, the company was ready to make its first hire.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: My name is Kurt Sonderegger, and I was the first employee at Plume, which went on to become Juul.

ARIELLE PARDES: In 2007, Kurt Sonderegger was a 41-year-old marketing director at Red Bull. He was the kind of person who religiously attended Burning Man and spent his vacation surfing in Bali. He was also a smoker.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: I was a long time smoker–heavily conflicted. I was eating well, exercising a lot, but it was the monkey I couldn’t get off my back.

ARIELLE PARDES: One day, Sonderegger received a cryptic LinkedIn message about a new company in need of a marketing director. Bowen and Monsees invited Sonderegger to meet them at a posh hotel in San Francisco.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: I went to sit down, and there are these two kind of slightly disheveled graduate student-looking guys. And we shook hands, and I went to take things out of my pocket as we do. One of the things that, when I put it on the table, kind of shockingly I noticed was a pack of cigarettes. I was very ashamed of smoking, and it’s not something I was proud of–certainly not in a first interview with a company I knew nothing about. And Adam and James kind of looked at each other and smiled slightly.

ARIELLE PARDES: As the meeting went on, Sonderegger realized why Bowen and Monsees were pleased to find out he was a smoker. They told him about Plume and described how vaporization worked.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: One of the things they made very clear was they didn’t want it to look like a cigarette. They wanted it to be its own thing–that they weren’t trying to replicate the cigarette paradigm. They were going to change that paradigm.

ARIELLE PARDES: The Plume was still just a prototype, but Sonderegger totally bought into the vision.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: We had Nicorette gum, we have patches, we have all kinds of tools that people could use to stop smoking, but it wasn’t working. So, clearly there’s something to the ritual of smoking that smokers really can’t let go of, and I bought into that 100%. I’m one of them.

ARIELLE PARDES: Sonderegger started at Plume in September of 2007. He likes to tell a story about his first day when he showed up to find the office had no desks, so he ran out to Home Depot to buy some supplies to make some. And yet Bowen and Monsees told Sonderegger they were planning to launch Plume in just a few months.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: That was not easy. There was certainly a lot to do. But, as a marketing person and not as an engineer, I couldn’t really jump in with them on a lot of the things. The only thing I could kind of help out with–other than branding and website and social media and all that stuff–was the flavor development.

ARIELLE PARDES: The Plume used a butane flame to heat a tiny metal cup–kind of like an Nespresso pod–filled with tobacco leaves and mixed with commercial food flavoring. The heat produced a vapor, which would then be inhaled through a mouthpiece. Overall, it resembled a large, chunky pen. Sonderegger said he always thought about it as a portable hookah.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: Kind of a hookah in your pocket. So, there were these little pods that had tobacco in them, and we didn’t want to just vape the straight tobacco. It’s a little bit boring. It doesn’t have that much flavor. So, following the hookah bottle, we started with adding different flavors and mixing it with the tobacco before filling these little pods.

ARIELLE PARDES: Bowen and Monsees had always imagined the Plume as a flavored product. Bowen in particular was often experimenting by combining tobacco leaves with various flavors in big mixing bowls. Some early flavors included cinnamon and butter. Bowen would leave pods on Sonderegger’s desk for him to sample, and eventually they settled on six flavors.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: Peach. The peach was called “Orchard.” “Café Noir Gold” was, like, a more traditional tobacco flavor. “Rocket” was a pretty strong flavor. And the two herbal flavors were “Blue Tea” and “Kick-Ass Mint.”

ARIELLE PARDES: As fun as it was to try out flavors, getting the Plume ready for market was taking way longer than the founders and Sonderegger had hoped. All of a sudden, it was 2009. The original launch date had come and gone, and they were still testing the Plume–to mixed reviews. At one point, Sonderegger lent a Plume to a friend to take to Burning Man. Afterwards, the friend reported that “the harsh playa conditions did not mix well with Pluming. There are too many working pieces and too many steps in the Pluming process.” Sonderegger’s friend said that, “by comparison, ciggy’s are simple.”

 KURT SONDEREGGER: We pushed ahead anyway because we needed to get something to market. Investors were getting a little bit antsy, and we needed to show some results. And at the same time, they knew that they would fail small, fail early, and keep iterating on the design.

ARIELLE PARDES: Finally, in late 2009–so five years after Bowen and Monsees came up with the idea–they soft launched the Plume Sonderegger put an image on their website of the Black Model One with the words “Small, Dark, and Handsome.” He also posted on a few message boards that the Plume was hitting the market soon. Hundreds of pre-orders came rolling in. A camera crew from a news website paid a visit to their office, and Monsees demonstrated the Model One for the reporter.

JAMES MONSEES: So, I’m Pluming this device because I’m not smoking. So then, when you inhale, you get this vapor. But it’s not smoke. It’s just vapor.

ARIELLE PARDES: Monsees went on to compare the process to steeping tea.

JAMES MONSEES: When you put a tea bag into hot water, you’re extracting the aroma–you’re extracting the caffeine. So, we’ve found a new way to make tea and have a very different experience that’s more suited to people who are smokers. So, you get the nicotine, you get the flavor, but you don’t actually burn the tobacco.

ARIELLE PARDES: The reporter points out that Bowen and Monsees are steering clear of claiming that the Plume is safer than a regular cigarette. Instead, Bowen used a familiar word: “cleaner.”

ADAM BOWEN: We believe that it is a cleaner ritual and alleviates a lot of the social and environmental concerns otherwise ascribed to smoking.

ARIELLE PARDES: And Monsees finished by further distancing the product from cigarettes.

JAMES MONSEES: What we’ve tried to do is create a new paradigm–something that doesn’t look like a cigarette and doesn’t feel or taste like a cigarette. It’s different.

ARIELLE PARDES: The media interest suggested there was some momentum but not enough. Like its Big Tobacco predecessors, the Plume Model One was a flop. For one thing, it wasn’t satisfying as a nicotine delivery system. Sonderegger would often Plume all morning and then go downstairs and have a cigarette. But also often the device just didn’t work. Sonderegger had a hard time communicating that to the founders. He remembered one instance in particular when Bowen just wasn’t accepting the flaws he was telling him about.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: I said, “Look, Adam, just come with me. Let’s make the rounds, and let’s see how this goes. And we went to, like, five head shops that day. And I remember one of the shops in particular–we went in there cold and presented the device to the guy. I just put it down on the table. I explained how it worked. And the guy–everything that could have gone wrong did wrong. He couldn’t get the butane in it. When he went to start it, he shocked his finger. He used it for a little bit, the mouthpiece fell off, and he broke his lip. And I remember seeing Adam’s face. He knew that these were problems, but when he saw, in five minutes, how all the major flaws came to light with one user in one interaction–I think that was the beginning of the end of, “Okay, we need to recalibrate. Go back to the drawing board. Fix this thing. It’s not ready for prime time.”

ARIELLE PARDES: Something had to change. But it wasn’t obvious what should be fixed first out of the Plume’s many, many problems.

ROMAN MARS: You’re listening to Backfired on 99% Invisible. More after this…

LEON NEYFAKH: According to emails we’ve seen from December of 2010, tensions started to emerge between Bowen and Monsees. Bowen felt the company’s number one goal should be pursuing deep lung nicotine delivery–the thing that, as he put it in one email, “literally keep smokers coming back for more.”

ARIELLE PARDES: Monsees worried that would essentially mean they were trying to make their device as addictive as possible. He replied, “If deep lung makes the product more enjoyable, then great. If the purpose is to keep people coming back for more, then I’m not sure I’m on board.” Monsees wanted people to Plume because they enjoyed Pluming–not because they were chemically addicted to it.

LEON NEYFAKH: Eventually, they settled on a compromise. They would focus on a new version of the Plume that solved what Monsees euphemistically called “its user interaction issues,” while also researching improvements to nicotine delivery. But doing both of these things would require money–money the company didn’t have.

ARIELLE PARDES: In fact, early investors had seen the failure of the Plume Model One and assumed that Bowen and Monsees would give up–that the future of smoking had been just another promising idea from Silicon Valley that ended up amounting to nothing much.

LEON NEYFAKH: But Bowen and Monsees weren’t ready to fold. Instead, they agreed to accept millions of dollars in investment capital from a Japanese tobacco company–exactly the type of company they had set out to disrupt and frankly destroy. To Kurt Sondereggerr, it initially seemed like a deal with the devil.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: I was a little conflicted about it, but I also realized why Japan Tobacco was doing it. They weren’t doing it to kill the technology as sometimes happens with tech companies, right? They buy a potential competitor and just kill it and wipe it out. They saw this also as the future. So, if a Big Tobacco company in a smoking crazy country like Japan could come in and say, “Hey, this is the future of smoking,” great. “Keep going guys. Keep innovating until you get it right.”

ARIELLE PARDES: Plus, for Sonderegger, it helped that Japan Tobacco was Japanese.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: It didn’t feel as bad as Altria or Philip Morris, do you know what I mean? As Japan Tobacco, it’s all the way on the other side of the world.

ARIELLE PARDES: With the investment in hand, the new plan was to have a revamped product on the market, hopefully within a year or so. But Sonderegger didn’t want to wait that long and decided to move on from the company.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: So, I departed. And what happened was, instead of fixing the Plume right away, they actually came out with the Pax.

LEON NEYFAKH: The Pax was Bowen and Monsees’ solution to their cash flow problem. Officially, it was a loose leaf vaporizer. Unofficially, it was a weed vape.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: It was funny because with the many investors that we talked to about this, quite often the first thing they would say under their breath, “Yeah, this is cool. Does it work for weed?” So, when enough people ask you if it works for weed, you have to ask yourself, “No, but we can make one that really works well for weed.” So, I think that’s what they did.

LEON NEYFAKH: Using their vaporization technology to help stoners wasn’t exactly Bowen and Monsees’ primary mission. But it was another compromise they were willing to make in order to keep the company afloat. And to their credit, they really didn’t halfass it. The Pax was born of a collaboration with Eve Behar, the Swiss designer, best known for the SodaStream bottle and the Jawbone Bluetooth headset.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: It was like a $200 or $300 vaporizer, and they sold hundreds of thousands of them. It was, like, that bestselling vaporizer in the country for weed, and it gave them what they needed.

LEON NEYFAKH: Finally, Bowen and Monsees had a bestselling product. And with the new influx of cash, they continued to refine the Plume. They also hired more employees.

LORENZO CASTILLO: All I remember is going into then where the customer service representatives worked, which was out of a supply closet with some retrofitted bathroom. And I thought, “This is it. This is the dream.” I was so pumped to be there.

ARIELLE PARDES: Lorenzo Castillo was still in college when he joined Plume to work part-time as a customer service representative. It was exactly what he hoped for. The company was still small but growing. It had a strong happy hour culture–no rules against vaping in the office–and his team had a habit of dressing up in suits and ties on Fridays since every other day people wore T-shirts and jeans. In other words, it was a lot of fun.

LORENZO CASTILLO: We would wait for the leadership team to come back from lunch. And when they would, we would shoot foam darts at them. And this is one of the videos where we’re just barraging them with foam darts as they walk in. You can see James catch one and shoot it back at us. And he sat right next to us. That was part of what enabled us to have that fun atmosphere–that he wasn’t beyond having a little fun in situations like that.

ARIELLE PARDES: Castillo loved the Pax, as did all of his friends.

LORENZO CASTILLO: When it came to Secret Santa for the couple of years that I worked there, I would bring a Pax, and that was always a big hit. I mean, in my mind, “This is it. This is the product, right?” It’s a discreet way to smoke pot where you don’t have to burn anything.

ARIELLE PARDES: But he also understood that the device wasn’t the company’s main ambition.

LORENZO CASTILLO: I always saw the Pax as a pleasant diversion from the mission that James and Adam had initially set out on. I think they really wanted to reinvent tobacco and how it was consumed as opposed to creating a discreet way for people to vaporize pot.

ARIELLE PARDES: Even as sales of the Pax took off, Bowen and Monsees were still focused on improving the design of the next version of the Plume–the Model Two. Crucially, they switched from a butane heat source to a USB rechargeable battery, so no more unpleasant shocks.

LORENZO CASTILLO: And I actually have one. I have a Model Two. I brought it in.

ARIELLE PARDES: You have one in your pocket right now?

LORENZO CASTILLO: Yeah, yeah. It’s funny. You look on this, and it’s fairly discreet, of course. It’s dead as hell. But this is probably my favorite thing–it’s still got a Rocket pod in it. And if you want, you can smell it, and you can still smell the Rocket pod if you twist it out.


LORENZO CASTILLO: That was my favorite flavor: Rocket.

ARIELLE PARDES: I don’t even know how I would describe this flavor. It doesn’t smell like something that exists in nature.

LORENZO CASTILLO: Some people, including myself, say Christmas. But yeah–no–I hear you. I think it’s got a cinnamon hit to it. It just… You know how they say smell is, like, the biggest hit of nostalgia? Smelling that brings me back to those times.

ARIELLE PARDES: The Plume Model Two was launched in 2013 with a swanky party in San Francisco. The company also co-sponsored a New York Fashion Week album release party for Robin Thicke. According to the New York Times, most attendees were a bit confused by the Plume. A brand ambassador had to explain to users, “They’re very popular–very international. They smell like cookies.” Glitz and confusion aside, the hope was that finally the company could build on the success of the Pax with an e-cigarette that actually worked.

LORENZO CASTILLO: Anything Model Two that came in was treated with white glove service. We were told to escalate that to our more senior customer service representatives and to really thoroughly work with those customers in terms of “What’s wrong? How can we help you?” I think that really showed where the priorities were for that company at that time.

ARIELLE PARDES: Bowen and Monsees were eager to get feedback from customers about the new and improved version of their device. The problem was there weren’t that many Model Two customers to learn from.

LORENZO CASTILLO: I remember we had an all-hands. And during that all-hands, an engineer, who–I’m not going to name names–was known to be vocal, rose his hand and said, “Exactly how many Model Twos have been sold?” I remember that being a palpably awkward moment, where it was clear that it wasn’t the hit that, I think, we wanted it to be as a company.

ARIELLE PARDES: The Plume Model Two had been an improvement on the Model One, but it still had many of the same problems. The mouthpiece felt fragile, and it had to be recharged every three or four uses. Crucially, it didn’t solve the problem Bowen had now been highlighting for years: it still didn’t deliver enough nicotine to satisfy smokers.

LORENZO CASTILLO: Heating was a problem with the Model Two. There was some inconsistencies with the mixtures because it was still a leaf-based product with the pods. And I think that led to a less than desired user experience.

LEON NEYFAKH: It was clear the entire way the Model Two worked–by vaporizing tobacco leaves–just wasn’t delivering a satisfying amount of nicotine. So, Bowen and Monsees went back to the tobacco documents they had first discovered while they were at Stanford. That was where they hit upon secret research from R.J. Reynolds into something called “nicotine salts.”The documents showed that, in the 1980s, scientists at the company reported that combining pure nicotine with an acid would create a special kind of salt. This salt eliminated the unpleasant effects that came with increasing the concentration of nicotine. But R.J. Reynolds had never commercialized this breakthrough. Apparently, they were concerned that it would produce such a smooth cigarette that people wouldn’t realize they were smoking way too much and that they would just keep smoking until they accidentally overdosed on nicotine. This seemed like a really promising potential solution, but only if Bowen and Monsees were willing to completely redesign how their nicotine vape worked. Instead of vaporizing tobacco leaves like the Model Two, a new device would need to mix nicotine in a liquid that would then be heated as an aerosol. This would require expertise that went far beyond Bowen and Monsees’ Stanford design credentials, so they hired a chemist to help. Her name was Chenyue Xing.

CHENYUE XING: They were a strong team with A mechanical engineering background and product design, but they didn’t have anybody with chemistry training. And that’s why they had this opening.

LEON NEYFAKH: Xing had a PhD in chemical engineering. She’d worked for big pharmaceutical companies on things like asthma inhalers and an inhaler migraine drug. Xing did not respond to our request to speak with her, so what you’re hearing is an interview she did with Bloomberg in 2019.

CHENYUE XING: I told specifically to the recruiter in the beginning that I was not a smoker and I don’t plan to start smoking. And then they said it’s not a requirement, even though many of their team are smokers.

LEON NEYFAKH: Xing recalled that Bowen and Monsees were actually Pluming during her job interview.

CHENYUE XING: It was not as annoying at all as somebody smoking next to you.

LEON NEYFAKH: She also recalled that they seemed aware that some scientists in the field of healthcare might be hesitant to work on a tobacco related product.

CHENYUE XING: But I actually hold different views on that because I think being somebody who develops medications or drugs–it’s actually to treat sickness. But I do see smoking as a behavior causing a lot of health problems and then causing a lot of stress on public health space in general.

LEON NEYFAKH: Xing took the job in 2013 and set about trying to figure out how to deliver a nicotine hit that would convert serious smokers. It would need to have just enough burn and a little hit to the back of the throat, but it couldn’t be too harsh to handle. Xing conducted her research in a lab that was set apart from the rest of the office. Lorenzo Castillo, the customer service rep, thinks that was not an accident.

LORENZO CASTILLO: I remember being like, “Wow, they’re really putting research under lock and key. You don’t walk by engineering anymore. Engineering is on the far side of the building.” And that to me was like, “There’s definitely a different part of the building for them.” They were really working on something special back there, and they wanted to limit distractions.

LEON NEYFAKH: Working closely with Bowen, Xing mixed different formulas of e-liquids and recruited coworkers to give feedback on the flavor and the nicotine hit. They called this “buzz testing.” Castillo remembered that his boss was one of the people who opted in to trying the new technology.

LORENZO CASTILLO: She was a cigarette smoker, and she volunteered.

LEON NEYFAKH: Xing documented her test subjects’ reactions to the new formulation. She wanted to know, “Did their heart rate increase? Did they get a throat hit? Did they feel a buzz?”

LORENZO CASTILLO: I remember being like, “Whoa, that’s new. They’re doing something that is a lot more data-intensive than anything we’ve done in the past.”

LEON NEYFAKH: Eventually, it became clear that nicotine salts were delivering a hit that was way, way stronger than anything Plume One or Two could give you. Xing had cracked the code.

CHENYUE XING: When those volunteers came to you and said that they haven’t touched their secret pack for a while… Well, I do think that we have a great product and we should let more people try it.

LEON NEYFAKH: On October 10th, 2014, Bowen and Xing filed a patent to protect their innovation. In their application, they reported having “unexpectedly discovered that certain nicotine liquid formulations provide satisfaction that was similar to smoking a traditional cigarette.” In fact, their formulation was so strong that it made users’ heart rates skyrocket higher and faster than if they just smoked. In other words, it had the potential to be even more addictive.

ARIELLE PARDES: While Bowen and Xing were at work on the nicotine formula, Monsees started thinking about a new design for their new device. He wanted it to be more like the Pax.

JOSH MORENSTEIN: Pax–that aesthetic–was born out of everybody on the team’s immediate instinctual distaste for this 420 aesthetic.

ARIELLE PARDES: Josh Morenstein was a designer at the firm that worked on the pacs. He remembers one detail in particular from his early interactions with Bowen and Monsees.

JOSH MORENSTEIN: The main thing I remember was that they were constantly, constantly vaping–constantly. And there was a giant bowl–a salad bowl–that had hundreds of multicolored Plume pods. Those were the little Nespresso guys. And then there was another bowl that had hundreds of used pods, and they would go through them constantly. They were constantly sucking on these things.

ARIELLE PARDES: Monsees wanted their new device to be easier to use than the Plume, something that people would want to keep in their pocket, and something they’d want to show off.

JOSH MORENSTEIN: The main component of the brief was: “Let’s design something that has permanence,” to use his words. And the idea was to create something that was reusable and rechargeable and refillable. People have to want this thing; it has to feel special.

ARIELLE PARDES: Monsees has offered Morenstein and his partner a contract for a few weeks of design work on this new concept. They agreed to take on the project and came up with a whole host of designs. Finally, when they felt they were almost tapped out…

JOSH MORENSTEIN: We said, “Is there anything that we’ve kind of left undiscovered?” And I think I said, “What would it be like to smoke in the future? Would you really use a cylinder?” This is all based off of the way that traditional tobacco is manufactured and processed and rolled. And I had a USB key on my keychain, which was a tiny, little rectilinear form. And it was cheap metal. It was rolled, and those are pretty inexpensive. And I said, “What if it was like this?”

ARIELLE PARDES: Like a USB stick. He put the one on his key chain up to his lips.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: And it felt better than trying to wrap your mouth around a circular shape.

ARIELLE PARDES: Morenstein and his partner dubbed this version the “Slab.” And they got to work drawing up the concept. They decided that you should be able to charge the device by sticking it into your computer just like a USB stick. In June of 2013, they presented the Slab to Bowen and Monsees.

 KURT SONDEREGGER: We have the original presentation here that we shared with the team at Juul.

ARIELLE PARDES: The PowerPoint shows the product already named “Juul.” Morenstein didn’t know when or how that name had been decided, but he recalled Bowen and Monsees already having settled on it before he was hired. Bowen would later clarify that the name was inspired by jewels–like gems–and joules, the scientific unit of energy.

JOSH MORENSTEIN: It fits into your hand. And you can see in this image here, when you’re holding it almost in a traditional cigarette format, it kind of sits between the fingers in a slim way. And it’s actually more comfortable than a cylinder would be.

ARIELLE PARDES: And they were just immediately like, “This is it. This is the one.”

JOSH MORENSTEIN: “Yeah, there’s no question. This is the one.”

ARIELLE PARDES: At this point in our interview, Morenstein put away the PowerPoint and pulled out one of the early prototypes of the Juul. Can I hold this Juul prototype?


ARIELLE PARDES: It’s remarkably similar to the Juul we know in love today.

JOSH MORENSTEIN: It’s probably the most famous thing I’ve ever designed for sure. At the end, I think we made $16,000 on it.

ARIELLE PARDES: Morenstein went on to design the fellow Gooseneck Kettle, the Open Spaces shoe rack, and Athena Club razors. But the Juul is far and away the most recognizable product he’s ever designed. That’s because it’s one of the most recognizable products of the 21st century, like the iPhone and the Tesla Model 3. Like smartphones and cars, e-cigarettes had existed long before the Juul came along. But it was Morentein’s design that made the Juul stand out.

JOSH MORENSTEIN: Frankly, I think we did a good job. You know what I mean? Still, I’m like, “Oh, we kind of nailed it.”

ARIELLE PARDES: Yeah, it’s iconic.

JOSH MORENSTEIN: Yeah. And that’s what we were hired to do.

ARIELLE PARDES: By early 2015, Adam Bowen and James Monsees were finally ready to release the Juul into the world, ten years after first presenting their idea to their classmates at Stanford. They started agreeing to interviews, like the one you heard at the beginning of this episode, where Monsees teased their upcoming product launch.

INTERVIEWER: So, let’s talk about this year. What is next? What’s in store for you guys?

JAMES MONSEES: A lot of great stuff. It’s all a top secret. Yeah, we’ll have more than one really awesome, new product out this year.

ARIELLE PARDES: “One really awesome, new product.” When Kurt Sonderegger got his hands on the Juul, he was really impressed with how far Bowen and Monsees had come from the prototype they showed him back in 2007. What did you think?

 KURT SONDEREGGER: They definitely fixed the product in every sense of the word. It was super easy. There were no pain points. There was no butane. There was no shock. It was easy to put a pod in and take a pot out. So, I knew it was going to be pretty big. I didn’t have any idea how big it actually got.

ARIELLE PARDES: He only had one concern. What if Bowen and Monsees had made their product a little too good?

 KURT SONDEREGGER: I gave it to one of my buddies, who owns a bar here in Encinitas, and he was a heavy smoker. And he finally completely gave up on cigarettes. And when I gave him his Juul, he told me that he said, “Shit, I feel like I’m addicted again.”

LEON NEYFAKH: This season on Backfired, we’ll take you inside Juul’s rides and its precipitous fall.

CLIP #6: I didn’t understand until it clicked. You can smoke the Juul wherever you want…

CLIP #7: Craze in e-cigarettes. It’s called “Juul,” and it is flying off the shelves…

CLIP #8: This thing is really sexy and disruptive…

CLIP #9: There is such a thing as a company growing too fast. Juul grew too fast…

CLIP #10: I’m going to go over a couple different ways to hit your Juul while you’re in school and not get caught…

CLIP #11: We literally called our bathroom the Juul room…

CLIP #12: Tonight, authorities investigating what could be the country’s first death linked to vaping…

CLIP #13: I think it was the beginning of the end for Juul…

LEON NEYFAKH: We’ll also hear from the co-founder of Juul, James Monsees, who has not spoken publicly about the company in nearly half a decade.

JAMES MONSEES: We could have done a lot better job collectively of dealing with this if we hadn’t been so focused on finding a new enemy so quickly.

ARIELLE PARDES: We’ll meet the new owners of the next generation of vape companies and the frustrated authorities who have been powerless to reign them in.

CLIP #14: We invested about $2 million, and we blew it up immediately into a multimillion dollar company within 90 days…

CLIP #15: Imagine you walking down the street and someone’s like, “Here, take this, like, 500 bucks. Run, run, run!”

CLIP #16: We didn’t predict what I now believe is an epidemic of e-cigarette use among teenagers…

CLIP #17: It was a witch’s brew of public health concerns.

CLIP #18: The teens are very clever. They seem to evade where the regulations go…

CLIP #19: U.S. agents recently seized more than 1.4 million illegal e-cigarettes…

CLIP #20: It can almost feel like a game of whack-a-mole…

LEON NEYFAKH: And finally, I’ll try to figure out how to end my own personal vaping war, or at least come to some sort of truce. My mom doesn’t really know about any of this, so I’m contemplating how I’ll talk about it on the podcast if I will.

ARIELLE PARDES: Yeah. I feel like a great way to tell your parents about your nicotine addiction is to launch a podcast series. Backfired is presented by Audible Originals and Prologue Projects. The show is hosted by Leon Neyfakh and me, Arielle Pardes.

LEON NEYFAKH: Our senior producer was Sam Lee. Our editor was Kim Gittleson. Our producers were Dustin DeSoto and Katherine Sullivan. Our assistant producer was Arlene Arevalo.

ARIELLE PARDES: Sound, designed by Andrew Parsons. Archival research and fact-checking by Francis Carr. Our theme song and score were composed by Emma Munger.

LEON NEYFAKH: Audio Mix by Erica Huang. Copyright counsel provided by Peter Jaszi and Brandon Butler at Jaszi Butler, PLLC.

ARIELLE PARDES: Heather Won Tesoriero is our executive producer at Audible Originals. Mike Charzuk is the head of production at Audible Studios. Rachel Ghiazzaza is Audible’s Chief Content Officer.

LEON NEYFAKH: Special thanks to Gabriel Montoya and Thomas Perfetti.

ARIELLE PARDES: Backfired was co-created by Kim Gittleson for Prologue Projects. Sound recording copyright 2024 by Prologue Projects.

ROMAN MARS: You can find the full season of Backfired for free if you’re an Audible subscriber. It’s created by the team at Prologue Projects, which has produced many excellent podcast documentaries hosted by Leon Neyfakh including many seasons of Fiasco, and Think Twice: Michael Jackson.

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