An ominous shot of a Juul in the dark.

The Vape

R.J. Cutler charts Juul's rise and fall in Big Vape.

Additional reporting by Whitney Pastorek
6 March 20244 min read

As students at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, James Monsees and Adam Bowen came up with the idea for Juul, a vaporizer that offered the ritual and buzz of smoking with less carcinogenic harm, while on a smoke break in 2004. Combining a sleek design (“the iPhone of e-cigs”) with early influencer advertising and aggressive social media campaigns, Juul became the fastest-growing company in world history. This meteoric rise caught director R.J. Cutler’s attention. “I was attracted to the fact that it was a metaphorical story for our time: the idea that the best intentions were met with unintended consequences,” says Cutler, who tackles the unprecedented story of Juul in his four-part series Big Vape. Today, Juul is worth less than 5 percent of what it was valued at its height and has faced a number of federal lawsuits for marketing an addictive product to minors.

Adapted from TIME correspondent Jamie Ducharme’s book Big Vape: The Incendiary Rise of Juul and produced by Amblin Television, This Machine, and TIME studios, Big Vape is a comprehensive and nuanced portrait of how Juul went from a hopeful public health opportunity to the catalyst for a new generation of nicotine addiction. Cutler, the two-time Emmy-winning director behind Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry and Belushi, speaks to scientists, investors, and employees, some going on the record for the first time, and chronicles early coverage of Monsees and Bowen’s work and unprecedented marketing tactics in the series. He also speaks to current and former Juul users and cigarette smokers as well as former leaders in the tobacco industry to bring the story to the screen. “We pinpointed not just the moment, but interviewed the actual people it began with,” Cutler says. 

Someone designs the Juul product against a mint green background.

Ensnared in other insidious changes of the 2010s — including the compulsivity and virality of social media and the soaring of big tech — Juul’s story serves as a poignant lens through which to understand a rapidly evolving zeitgeist. “They were trying to solve a problem with circuitry that needed more than circuitry to be solved,” remarks Cutler. “As one of our subjects says, the Juul was a highly addictive product colliding with a highly addictive culture.” Of Cutler’s approach to the staggering subject, Amblin Television’s Justin Falvey says, “I think he has a real handle on the human condition, what makes people tick, and how to get the best story while never compromising the integrity of whoever’s involved.”