Do you even vape, bro? Well if the US Food and Drug Administration has its way, that answer might soon be a hard no. Last month, the FDA went after Juul, the reigning champ of the e-cigarette industry, and effectively banned the selling of all Juul products in the US. Of course, Juul fought back, and a judge stayed the order. Now, as Juul fights for its life, the rest of the multibillion-dollar market of nicotine-dispensing tech has billowed in to fill the space.
This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED senior writer Arielle Pardes joins us to talk about Juul's battle with the FDA and what it means for vaping and nicotine products as a whole.
Arielle Pardes can be found on Twitter @pardesoteric. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.
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Lauren Goode: Mike.
Michael Calore: Lauren.
Lauren Goode: Mike, have you ever vaped? I feel like I should know this about you, but I don't.
Michael Calore: I used to vape all the time.
Lauren Goode: You did?
Michael Calore: Back when it was all the rage, about, I don't know, five, six years ago. Yeah.
Lauren Goode: Oh, so I just missed your vaping stage because I joined WIRED about four years ago.
Michael Calore: Yeah, I think so.
Lauren Goode: What would you do if the world ran out of vape juice?
Michael Calore: I would probably just smoke a cigarette.
Lauren Goode: Oh, really? All right. We have to talk about this.
[Gadget Lab intro theme music plays]
Lauren Goode: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I'm Lauren Goode. I'm a senior writer at WIRED.
Michael Calore: And I'm Michael Calore. I'm a senior editor at WIRED.
Lauren Goode: Welcome back, Mike.
Michael Calore: Thank you.
Lauren Goode: We really missed you.
Michael Calore: I missed you too.
Lauren Goode: And by “we” I'm speaking for our audience too, because I'm assuming they missed you.
Michael Calore: I missed you and our audience as well.
Lauren Goode: Well, this week we're also joined by someone else who I'm sure misses you: WIRED senior writer Arielle Pardes, our former Gadget Lab cohost and still a friend of the pod. Hey Arielle.
Arielle Pardes: Hi. It's so good to be with you guys again.
Lauren Goode: It's great to have you back. OK. So today we are talking about vaping. It's origins, why it caught on so fast, and what the future of vaping might be now that regulators are cracking down on it. So for those not totally hooked, vapes are those electric nicotine sticks that your high schooler might hide up their sleeve.
This market for e-cigarettes has taken off over the past few years. It's now a multibillion-dollar industry. And at the front of all of it has been Juul. That's J-U-U-L. Back in 2018, Juul Labs, which is the company that makes the Juul vape, was valued at $38 billion. But that wouldn't last very long. Last month, the FDA moved to effectively ban Juul products from being sold in the United States. Now Juul has objected, and a judge stayed the order, but Juul's fate still kind of hangs in a limbo of legal battles.
Arielle, you wrote a story about all this for WIRED.com. Before we get into the FDA's crackdown on nicotine products, tell us a little bit about Juul's backstory. Like when did it launch, and why has this particular vape appealed to so many people?
Arielle Pardes: Sure. So the Juul story really begins in 2014, which is the year that the product was introduced. Juul's cofounders had been kind of iterating on an e-cigarette for about 10 years prior to that. They met at Stanford, where they were in the masters of design program and—
Lauren Goode: As one does, goes to Stanford, majors in design, makes a cigarette product.
Arielle Pardes: Right. Well, both cofounders were smokers themselves and wanted to stop smoking because it's horrible for your health. Cigarettes are the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. And it's really hard to quit. So the cofounders had this idea to make a product that was satisfying enough for someone who was a smoker, looked cool enough, felt cool enough, gave you the same kind of nicotine head rush, but it effectively eliminated your cancer risk.
And so they started with a product called the PLUME. They later made a THC product called the PAX. And then in 2014, they came out with the Juul, which really changed the game for e-cigarettes in two sort of important ways.
The first was that it had this amazing design—it was small and kind of tech-like. It was about the size of a flash drive. It was matte black. It had no buttons, just this LED light that would light up when you inhaled. Very elegant and cool and iPhone-y.
And the second key feature of the Juul was that it had a higher nicotine content that most other e-cigarettes on the market. So rather than getting something that had about 1 percent nicotine by volume, which was pretty standard in the industry, you were getting about 5 percent by volume, and this is a really key product development of the Juul.
The company found a way to create something called nicotine salts, which allowed them to put more nicotine in the device. And that made it a lot more satisfying for people who were trying to quit smoking. It obviously made it a lot more addictive for people who were not smokers, but that's kind of where the story begins in 2014.
Lauren Goode: And so by design, Juul morphed from something that people might use to try to quit smoking to something that just all the cool kids were doing. You mentioned in your story that it really attracted the Snapchatting, hoverboarding crowd, which I take to mean young people. People younger than us. How much of this was part of some concerted effort on Juul's part?
Arielle Pardes: Yeah. So this is kind of one of the great questions of the Juul story, is how intentionally did they court young people? You know, it's hard to parse the answer. If you talk to the Juul founders, their answer has been for many, many years that they are making a product for adult smokers who want to switch from cigarettes to something healthier.
However, from the get-go, Juul's marketing was featured on platforms like Instagram and in youth magazines like Seventeen magazine and Vice, and on places like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, which are not generally where you find an audience of adult smokers.
The average smoker in the United States is between the ages of 35 and 60. So Nickelodeon is not really an ideal place to reach them. And the marketing materials also featured people who looked really cool. I mean, one of the early ad campaigns for Juul was called Vaporized, and it showed these young cool people blowing vapor rings and standing in front of colorful backgrounds and looking chic. And they had a lot of product placement in cool New York parties.
So from the very beginning this was marketed, not like a product that was a smoking-cessation device, which lots of previous e-cigarette companies had sort of stayed in that lane. It was marketed like a product that was like the new iPhone or the new hoverboard or the new Snapchat, right? Something that makes you look cool. And that kind of in-groups you with the people in your generation.
I guess the last thing I'll say is that Juul also became very popular because it tastes good. I don't know if you guys have any feelings about cigarettes, but I personally think that one of the main reasons not to smoke cigarettes is that you smell bad and it tastes bad in your mouth. And there's kind of like an ick factor to getting into tobacco. Whereas Juul from the get-go, it tasted like a sort of fruit smoothie or a crème brûlée, and that is something that tobacco products are not allowed to do. Like a cigarette cannot make flavors that are appealing to young people. They can only sell flavors that are gross and taste like tobacco. But Juul was able to get a lot of people interested in the product because it tasted good and it looked cool.
Michael Calore: Yeah. The flavoring is really interesting to me, because it's the differentiating factor that makes Juul more appealing, but it's also the thing that made it more visible to regulators. So the device, it's actually it's two pieces, right? It's a rechargeable stick with a battery in it and the little motor in it. And then there's a pod that slides in, and you buy the pods, and you interchange them whenever you run out or want a different flavor. And the pods come in different flavors. And the ones that really drew the ire of the FDA and the other regulatory bodies around the country were the ones that were the fruity flavors, right? The fruity and candy-style flavors.
Arielle Pardes: Yeah. Mango was a very popular one among the youth.
Michael Calore: So, because the fruity candy flavors were the things that were going to draw regulatory attention to them, Juul had to change its business. How did Juul's relationship with regulatory bodies sort of evolve?
Arielle Pardes: You know, it's very interesting. When Juul came onto the market, the FDA did not actually regulate e-cigarettes. And this is kind of long and boring and complicated, but to make that very long story short, due to the way that tobacco regulations were written, the FDA didn't have jurisdiction over products that contained nicotine but not tobacco.
So it took a while for the FDA to actually gain the authority to do anything about e-cigarettes. But then even once they did gain the authority, they took a pretty lax approach to regulating the industry. And people who have been critical of companies like Juul, find this to be the most important part of the story, which is that the FDA had the power to crack down on these companies, to regulate them, to review applications about what kind of products they were selling to young people and how they were advertising them. And they didn't.
And as a result of that, these companies got really, really big. So Juul launched in 2014. By 2018, this was a company that had completely redefined the category. Juuling and vaping had become synonymous. It was like the Kleenex of e-cigarettes. It was worth $38 billion. For a comparison, that's about twice as much as Lyft was worth in 2018.
So we're talking about like tremendous, tremendous growth. But by 2018, regulators had kind of realized they had to do something, because not only was this product very popular, but there were some indications that it had become very popular with people under the age of 18. That there was kind of like a whole group of young people becoming addicted to nicotine. And this was causing a crisis that perhaps outweighed the benefits to adult smokers who wanted to quit cigarettes. And so at the same time that Juul is getting really, really big, it's also anticipating that there could be a regulatory crackdown, and it needs to get its shit together, stop acting like one of these move-fast-and-break-things startups, and start acting like a company that's regulated by the FDA.
So they did something pretty radical, which is, they actually pulled their most popular flavors from the shelves. And that included all of their sweet and fruity flavors, like mango, which contributed to most of the company's revenue, with the intent of currying favor with the FDA. Saying like, "We can play by your rules. We are a product for adult smokers. We are not trying to entice children to use nicotine products."
And I think at the time, a lot of people were optimistic that this was a shift in the industry. That everyone had kind of gotten a little more serious about the youth nicotine problem, that the FDA was going to make some moves, and that Juul was going to be cooperative. And of course, as we know now, a couple years later, that wasn't really enough, and it hasn't really done much to solve any of the problems that people are concerned about.
Lauren Goode: Arielle, thanks for lighting up the first segment about Juul for us. Sorry, that was a terrible pun. And we're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we're going to do some more sick vape tricks.
Lauren Goode: So Juul's future may be a little bit up in the air, but even if the company goes up in smoke, it's not likely to be the end of the entire e-cigarette market. Arielle, what happened next for Juul, and what were the implications of that?
Arielle Pardes: OK. So as I said, in 2018 they pulled their most popular flavors from the shelf in an effort to appease the FDA. But a very interesting thing happens when you have built a market of people who want your products, and then you take your products away. Obviously what happens is that another company steps in to fill the market. So Juul had basically established millions of customers who liked smoking vapor flavored like mango, and if they weren't going to sell it, then somebody else would.
And so what basically happened is that an entire industry of copycats moved in to take hold of that market. I talked to some people who were in college in 2018 about their relationship to nicotine products. And they basically told me that when Juul stopped selling its popular flavors, nobody wanted to smoke the tobacco one, which is exactly the point, right? Like to stop appealing to kids. But pretty soon, these other brands moved in. They're called Elf Bar and Fume and Puff Bar, and they come in these whimsical colors and beautifully designed packages. And they still sell all of the flavors that Juul used to, and more. You can get them in a pineapple flavor that tastes like a piña colada. And so kids kind of moved over to those products.
And a really interesting thing has happened with these new companies, which is that a lot of attention has been paid to Juul, which is the most well-known brand in e-cigarettes. But while Juul has kind of been chipped away, little by little from various regulatory agencies and also a bunch of different lawsuits from industry groups and state attorneys general, who have blamed the company for creating this youth nicotine epidemic. Not as much attention has been paid to these other companies that have moved in.
And so they've managed to escape a lot of the regulatory efforts that have affected Juul and other big companies. So there's this interesting sort of Whac-A-Mole situation happening, where regulatory agencies like the FDA are trying to deal with companies on an individual basis, and every move they make just gives rise to another company to meet the market demand that isn't going away.
Michael Calore: Right. And in your story, you spoke to a source, an anti-tobacco-industry activist who pointed out that when regulatory loopholes appear, they basically just paint the roadmap for the industry by pointing clearly to the places it should move next.
Arielle Pardes: Yeah. And one great example of that is the Trump administration made this very dramatic move to ban flavored e-cigarette products. And this was specifically to try to curb the market of young people from getting products that are tasty and contain just an insane amount of nicotine. But the ban was written in such a way that it left a loophole for products that, unlike Juul, come with the pods built in, they come precharged, and then you throw them away once you're finished with the delicious flavored nicotine liquid. And so that's allowed these brands like Elf Bar and Puff Bar to stay on the market, even while Juul has been slowly chipped away by regulators.
Lauren Goode: And you say in your story that these other products are now the most popular vaping devices among teens, which has bummed out some public health advocates, understandably. So is this just a game of Whac-A-Mole, like vapers are going to vape?
Arielle Pardes: Yeah, I do think that's one of the big concerns. I mean, I spoke to a number of anti-vaping groups in the course of my reporting and some pro-vaping groups. And everyone has a different expectation about how this year is going to go.
I think some people are pretty optimistic that this is the year the FDA really takes strong action and that, although it will take time for the FDA to individually review applications from every vaping company out there and make decisions about which ones are authorized and which ones are not, some are optimistic that this is the year the vaping industry goes kaput.
Other people, I think, are looking back on the last decade of FDA regulation and are saying they are skeptical that the impact will be big enough to wipe out the industry altogether. And I think if tech history tells us anything, it's that if there's a market, there are companies that are going to serve it one way or another. So we'll see what happens.
Lauren Goode: I also wonder what this means in the broader demand for harm reduction, in the sense that some people move on from harder drugs or addictions to other vices and end up vaping or smoking, because it's something that ultimately is less harmful, at least in the short term.
Arielle Pardes: Yeah. I mean, a lot of vaping advocates are worried that the crisis of Juul has largely been a PR crisis, and not a health crisis. I talked to one public health researcher who said, “If you look at the harms of smoking, they're very severe. But if you look at the harms of nicotine, it's still not entirely clear what they are.” Like, there's some indication that high nicotine use can have a negative effect on heart health, but those correlations aren't really well established. And we don't have decades of research on what happens to young people who become addicted to nicotine in their teens.
So there is kind of a question mark about what is actually the greater risk. Is it that we have a lot of young people who are now nicotine addicts and may potentially become smokers in the future? Or is it a greater risk that people who have smoked in the past will now continue to smoke because they don't have access to vaping products that are satisfying to use?
So yeah, I think there are a lot of interesting arguments, and unfortunately I don't think there's a straightforward path for the FDA to take, that appeases everyone, or neatly solves any of these problems.
Michael Calore: Yeah. You can't eradicate vice with legislation.
Arielle Pardes: Yeah.
Lauren Goode: Arielle, thanks so much for this. We're going to take another quick break and then we'll come back and do our recommendations.
Lauren Goode: Arielle Pardes, as our guest of honor, what is your recommendation this week?
Arielle Pardes: My recommendation is for Nixta. It is made of corn and I have to say it is the drink of the summer.
Michael Calore: Nice.
Lauren Goode: You heard it here.
Arielle Pardes: I recently had a cocktail made with this enticing corn elixir, and it was unlike anything I've ever had before. Apparently Nixta has not been available in the United States until this year. It's an export from Mexico. And so if you get on it now, you will be officially a trendsetter, ahead of the curve. And it's just delicious. It's great in a cocktail. It's great on its own. It tastes like the best tortilla you've ever had, but in sweet alcohol form. Just try it, just try it.
Michael Calore: Does it pair nicely with mango vape juice?
Arielle Pardes: I have not tried that pairing, but I am confident it would be delicious.
Lauren Goode: It sounds like something that would be good with a huge bowl of guacamole.
Arielle Pardes: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Mike, what's your recommendation?
Michael Calore: So keeping with the theme, I'm going to recommend a book that deals with dependency, among other things. It's called The Copenhagen Trilogy, and it's by a woman named Tove Ditlevsen, who is a very famous poet from Copenhagen, Denmark. She's a Danish poet. She lived through most of the 20th century. This is a memoir that she wrote when she was in her, I would say mid-forties. She wrote it in the 1960s and '70s. And it is about her youth—her childhood, her youth, and her early adulthood. It deals with from her earliest memories up until she's sort of in her mid- to late twenties. It covers her first three husbands, but it—
Arielle Pardes: Wait. Three of how many?
Michael Calore: I think she had four in her life. I think she had four.
Lauren Goode: Right on. Wow, I thought planning one wedding was hard.
Michael Calore: It's one of the best memoirs that I have ever read. It's really amazing. Just because she is such an economical and unique writer. She has this very clear, very crisp voice that is a pleasure to read. And it is like propulsive. Like you start, and it's so fast and so economical that you just keep going.
I read the book in a matter of days, which is rare for me. If you know me, you know I'm a very slow reader. But the big theme in the book is dependency. Thanks in no small part to her second husband, who was a doctor, she became addicted to Demerol. And the passages in the second half of the book that talk about her Demerol addiction, and the dependency and the withdrawal and the cravings, and how she incorporated those things into her life after she was able to get off of Demerol, is really, like, that's the best part of the book.
It's really fascinating and harrowing. Very difficult to read, but also one of the best things about addiction and dependency and codependency that I've ever read. So that's my recommendation. The Copenhagen Trilogy has been around for a while, but it was recently, I want to say two years ago, released in a new translation that puts all of her memoirs together into one volume. And you can find it where you find all of Tove Ditlevsen books.
Arielle Pardes: Is this the book of the summer?
Michael Calore: It's pretty grim. And it was probably the book of two winters ago. I was just slow to get to it, but I read it recently on my vacation, and I was going to recommend it at the first chance I got it. Just so happens that we're talking about dependency on chemicals today, so today it sort of made sense.
Lauren Goode: And you read the entire trilogy?
Michael Calore: Yeah. It's just like, it's as long as a regular book; it's not three books. It's one volume.
Lauren Goode: Got it.
Michael Calore: One book with three volumes inside of it. But yeah, you can read the whole thing pretty quick. Lauren, what is your recommendation?
Lauren Goode: Do you want to hear something funny, Mike?
Michael Calore: I would love to hear something funny.
Lauren Goode: It's probably funny to nobody except for me, but I had a feeling this was going to be your recommendation this week, because I saw you check it off as read on Goodreads.
Arielle Pardes: Wow, Goodreads stalker.
Lauren Goode: Yeah. Mike is my only friend on Goodreads, and so when he finishes a book, that's the only notification that I get. And I just got one this morning.
Michael Calore: I feel so honored.
Arielle Pardes: Wow, wow.
Lauren Goode: Yes.
Michael Calore: To be your only friend on Goodreads. Also, you're probably the only person until right now who knows that I'm also reading Outlander.
Lauren Goode: I could probably open the app right now and tell everyone all the books you're reading, but we'll save that for a future episode.
Michael Calore: I just needed something to balance out all of the heavy Danish drama. So I went for some bodice-ripping romance. Anyway, Lauren, what is your recommendation?
Lauren Goode: My actual recommendation this week, aside from stalking Mike on Goodreads, is a show called The Bear on Hulu. I first heard about this because I read this fantastic GQ profile of the star actor of the show. GQ, I should note, is also owned by Condé Nast, our parent company. So they're a sibling magazine to WIRED, but I was so intrigued by this profile that I decided to start The Bear this week.
And I'm fascinated by it already. I'm only three episodes in. Typically I don't like to recommend something unless I've finished it, but I have a feeling I'm going to finish this series. And it's about a young chef, a rising star, who's working at some of the most elite restaurants in the world, who gets compelled to return to his hometown of Chicago and take over his brother's, it's a deli/sandwich shop, after his brother's suicide. Which you find out pretty early on in the series, so I'm not spoiling anything.
So it's in a very different environment that he's working in. And he's obviously going through some internal grief processes while he's trying to keep his business alive. And there's great acting and great dialog in the show. And it really, I think, captures some of the stressors of working in the restaurant industry, and yeah, it's great so far. So I recommend checking out The Bear, if you're looking for something new to watch. That's on Hulu.
Also, I have to recommend real bears, because I was at Lake Tahoe last week, well, last week into this week. And I happened to step out, and I'm so bummed about this—I happened to go out for a hike, but the folks who were staying back at the house where I was staying, they had like this really amazing close encounter with bear cubs. And they were the cutest things ever. I must have watched this video clip 50 times. And I can't believe that I wasn't there for it. They were just kind of scaling up this tree that was next to the patio. And mama bear was not too far away. It was just really incredible to see.
So yeah, I told a friend about this. I said, “I saw this video of these cool bears that were right outside of our house.” And he was like, “You've seen bears before, right?” And I was like, “Maybe, I guess. Maybe I've seen bears. I don't know.” It's not like a common … I mean, we do live in Northern California, so it's not uncommon, but also, I lived in New York City for a long time. And it's not like I saw bears there. You don't see bears in San Francisco.
Michael Calore: Did you ever go to a Cubs game?
Lauren Goode: Yeah. I have been to a Cubs game.
Michael Calore: So there you go.
Lauren Goode: I guess I have. Anyway, bears are incredible. I feel like this is going to be one of those timestamps. Like someone's going to come out when I'm eaten by a bear seven years from now, and someone's going to be like, “She was on that show a long time ago, talking about how much she loves bears. She poked the bear.”
Arielle Pardes: Should you be so lucky to go in such a way.
Lauren Goode: Yes, right? With such notoriety.
Michael Calore: I'm going to vape myself to death.
Arielle Pardes: Less cool. Less cool.
Lauren Goode: All right. That's our show, thanks for letting me ramble about bears. Thank you Arielle for joining us. It's been really wonderful having you back.
Arielle Pardes: My pleasure.
Lauren Goode: And welcome back, Mike. It's great to have you back.
Michael Calore: Thanks. It's very good to be back.
Lauren Goode: And thanks to all of you for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter. Just check the show notes, we'll include our Twitter handles. Our producer is the excellent Boone Ashworth. We'll be back next week, bye for now.
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