How the vape king of teen nicotine addiction rose and fell in San Francisco

‘Hey, Juul, don’t let the door hit you on the way out’

Like many tech companies, Juul started up in San Francisco.

And like many tech companies, the nicotine addiction company flattered itself with a dubious origin story about a selfless mission to do good in the world. Juul claimed it wanted to disrupt the cigarette industry with cleaner-burning vapes. In reality, it used the science of addiction, and sly marketing, to create a youth vaping epidemic and drive exponential growth.

Instead of using likes and algorithms to pull in customers, Juul employed a more direct method to stimulate dopamine and hook brains on its product. It repackaged nicotine dependency in candy flavors like mango, cool mint and creme brulee, delivering its highs — as addictive as heroin — via a sleek device nicknamed the “iPhone of e-cigarettes.”

“Flavored e-cigarettes and vaping products are a major threat to the health and wellbeing of kids, period,” said Jim Steyer, the founder of Common Sense Media and a staunch vaping opponent. “And Juul ignited the youth e-cigarette epidemic.”

In just three years, Juul — founded in the Dogpatch in 2015 — helped introduce millions of children to sugary sweet nicotine flavors. By 2018, one out of every five high school students would report using e-cigarettes, and no brand was more popular than Juul. The tobacco unicorn had 75% of the market share, but its popularity with children also sowed the seeds of its destruction.

The Juul-driven youth addiction epidemic created widespread public alarm, angering parents and provoking a government crackdown that would help deflate Juul’s valuation from $38 billion in 2018 to under $5 billion today. Today, the company awaits a ruling from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on whether it can continue to sell any of its products.

Juul’s demise, like its rise, has roots in San Francisco. As Juul pursued global expansion in 2018, outraged parents, doctors and health advocates in San Francisco launched Proposition E to ban flavored tobacco sales here. The tobacco industry invested $12 million to fight the ballot measure, which also banned menthol cigarettes. The Yes On E campaign had only a fraction of that amount, and most of it came from Michael Bloomberg.

Full disclosure: I’m not fond of the tobacco industry, and I worked in support of Prop. E. Polls showed a tight race, and when I arrived at Hotel Zeppelin for the election night party, I fully expected Prop. E to lose. Yet 68.4% of San Francisco voters supported the flavored tobacco ban.

Prop. E delivered a crushing blow to Juul. San Francisco, the company’s hometown, had become the first city in the nation to ban the sale of the company’s most addictive products.

“For tobacco policy, it’s long been understood: What happens in California, so goes the nation,” wrote Lauren Etter in “The Devil’s Playbook: Big Tobacco, Juul, and the Addiction of a New Generation.” “The company was already under attack from many sides. It couldn’t afford to have its markets choked off, one by one, by more cities and states across the country.”

San Francisco’s ban inspired other cities, especially after tobacco giant Altria paid $12.8 billion for a 35% stake in Juul in December 2018. The windfall turned many of Juul’s employee’s into wealthy “Juulionaires,” but it was a Pyhrric victory. The investment from Philip Morris’ parent company removed Juul’s mask of benevolence, revealing it as the high-tech face of Big Tobacco.

Public outrage surged as vape addiction spread through schools across the nation. Juul found itself mired in multimillion dollar payouts to settle lawsuits filed by school districts outraged by its role in the youth vaping crisis.

And San Francisco was not done humiliating Juul. When the company tried to repeal Prop. E with a sneaky $16 million ballot measure called Proposition C in 2019, nearly 80% of San Francisco voters rejected the Juul-funded scheme.

“Juul stole a page from Big Tobacco’s 30-year-old playbook to vaporize nicotine salts and make the poison go down easier,” said Christine Chessen, a mother of three who became an advocate with Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes, in 2019. “San Francisco has long been a leader in making laws to protect public health and the environment that are later adopted by other cities and states. Hey, Juul, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Defeated in The City, Juul moved its headquarters to Washington, D.C. The raging youth nicotine epidemic, coupled with a mysterious “vape lung illness” that killed 61 people, finally pushed the FDA to enact a partial ban on flavored vaping products in January 2020. California went even further, with Gov. Gavin Newsom signing a bill to ban all flavored tobacco products that August. The tobacco industry has already raised $21 million for a 2022 ballot measure to repeal it.

The FDA now holds the key to Juul’s fate nationwide. The agency is reviewing whether to allow certain flavored vape products on the market. By last week, it had rejected applications for nearly 1 million flavored e-cigarette products, but it had not yet decided on Juul’s remaining tobacco and menthol-flavored products (the company has pulled its most popular flavors off the market for now). The agency did permit the sale of some of R.J. Reynolds’ tobacco-flavored Vuse vaping products, raising the likelihood that Juul may survive in some form.

If so, the company will have some catching up to do. Puff Bar, a defiant new competitor, has cornered the kiddie vape market with flavors like banana ice and mixed berries. The secret of its success? Disposable products containing a synthetic nicotine its owners claim is outside the FDA’s jurisdiction.

When it comes to addicting kids to nicotine, the innovation never stops.

Gil Duran is opinion editor of The San Francisco Examiner. Write him at gduran@sfexaminer.com.

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