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A hard-hitting documentary series called Broken premiered on Netflix, with four episodes tackling different industries and their supposed unethical practices. The second episode of Broken is called BIG VAPE and is about the rise of electronic cigarettes and current state of the vape industry.
Our founder, Kurt Sonderegger, was one of the vape industry figures interviewed for Broken: Big Vape. Let’s take a look at how the Netflix team tackled vaping and what the vaping community can take away from it.
From the opening scene featuring 4 high school students, most viewers may assume that this documentary is a hit piece on vaping. This was not 100% the case as the film is actually fairly balanced as it also shows the UK model and how they view vaping as an indispensable tool to tackle the real problem - smoking and it's 50% death rate of smokers that fail to stop smoking.
Broken frames vaping as an “epidemic” among American teenagers, with emphasis on nicotine addiction and its potentially harmful effects on long-term health. It then looks into the history of the tobacco industry, and then that of e-cigarettes and vaping and how the original intent of its invention was for helping people quit tobacco.
Besides the 4 high school students using an annoying amount of lingo ( ie "rip a juul" or "zeroing a hit", etc) sprinkled with an even more annoying amount of the word "like" between all of this - it is somewhat dumbfounding that no one ever asks the students where they purchase their vape products from? Isn't this the real issue? How are these kids getting their hands on vaping products with the legal age of 18 (at that time) and now 21?
Big Vape then visits the Vapexpo Las Vegas followed by exploring the details JUUL’s rise as an upstart brand launched in 2015 whose groundbreaking device delivers higher doses of nicotine effectively - which has been shown to be more effective in helping smokers switch to vaping than anything previously on the market. This is coupled with the picture of how vaping is seemingly turning younger generations into addicts for the sake of profit. Thus is the conundrum - greater success in reducing smoking coupled with an increase in teen nicotine addiction.
We also see how the big tobacco comapanies like Phillip Morris is looking to eventually phase out combustible cigarettes and get into vaping as well, taking advantage of the country’s lack of regulations. The focus then shifts to how the United Kingdom is addressing vaping and contrasting that to the current policies of the United States.
It’s shown that while the US has done much to hinder the vaping industry, the UK government has fully supported vaping as a healthier (95 % safer according to the Public Health England) alternative to smoking. This actually makes sense since in the UK, the government pays for people when they get sick via the National Health Service or NHS and in USA, pharmaceutical companies make a profit when people become sick.
Big Vape was filmed in 2018, a full year before it's release, so it wasn't able to really weigh in on the more recent developments detailing the surge of vape-related lung illnesses in 2019, illegal THC cartridges being the main culprit, and how the Center of Disease Control is addressing the issue. They did add some text to the end of the piece but even this was not entirely accurate as we now know that 100% of the vape related illnesses were caused by exposure to Vitamin E Acetate - a known additive to black market THC vaping cartridges.
History of the Tobacco Industry
The beginnings of the tobacco industry go way back to well over a century, but it did not experience a boom until after World War II. Cigarettes were marketed to a post-war world as a lifestyle product, portraying it as a conduit for social interaction like with alcohol and an enhancer of one’s image.
Meanwhile, tobacco companies had been coming up with new ways to sell more of their products. They added chemicals like ammonia to make smoke easier to inhale and make their cigarettes more addictive. But then, the specter of cancer soon loomed as cases of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases started to spike up.
While the tobacco industry continued to deny the connection between their products and respiratory illness well into the 1990s, medical science had already drawn that conclusion for decades. It has since become undeniable, and the tobacco industry had known all along internally while continuing to deceive the public.
Over time, governments all around the world clamped down on the sale of cigarettes, from imposing taxes and adding graphic warning labels to banning tobacco advertisements and their consumption in public places.
Tobacco sales have been dropping, but it’s still not enough to bring the tobacco industry to their knees. People were still smoking and dying of lung cancer, and quitting aids like nicotine patches were not enough to help eliminate addiction.
Born in northwest China, Hon Lik’s father had been a smoker and he himself also picked up the habit at a young age during the tail end of the Cultural Revolution. To earn his education, he was sent to work in a rural area where tobacco is grown and processed. He eventually moved back to the city and studied to become a pharmacist.
He continued to smoke well into his adult life, smoking one to two packs a day. Then in the early 2000s, his father was diagnosed with lung cancer. He tried to quit using aids like nicotine patches, but would then crave a cigarette whenever he saw someone smoking in the street. He realized that nicotine supplementation alone can’t sufficiently substitute cigarettes.
He figured out that the ritual of taking a draw from a cigarette is an important part of the habit. In order to properly substitute cigarettes with something else, something has to satisfy that oral fixation and deliver nicotine at the same time without having to inhale the harmful chemicals that cause respiratory illnesses.
His solution was what would become the first modern e-cigarette. As a pharmacist, he had the knowledge and expertise to formulate what would later become eliquid, which contains freebase nicotine. He then engineered the mechanism for vaporizing the eliquid so it could be inhaled. He came up with a prototype in 2003, which is shown in the film.
Interviewing Hon Lik to get his take on why he created the e-cigarette presents to viewers the original intent behind the invention as an effective method of quitting tobacco. He has since sold his patents and is still credited to this day as the father of vaping.
For a more complete history of ecigs and vape devices, check out our blog post HERE
Our CEO founder of Cafe Racer Vape, Kurt Sonderegger, was interviewed in VapExpo Las Vegas, one of the premier events for the global vape industry. Kurt was the first employee at Juul back in 2007 (it was called Ploom back then) and he himself had been a former smoker who struggled with the habit until he came upon vaping.
“The first time I went into a real vape shop and I got a proper device, I literally crushed up the pack of cigarettes I had in my hand, threw it in the basket, and that was it. That was May of 2012,” Sonderegger said, looking back at how vaping helped him quit smoking.
“I’d say most of (VapExpo) is former smokers, at least 90% of them,” stated Lonnie Bozeman, founder of SVRF & Saveurvap. “The last time we counted, there were about 22,000 e-liquid brands worldwide.”
Since 2009, vaping has grown from a niche subculture to a mainstream industry. Meanwhile, independent vape companies are now being acquired by big tobacco companies, which can potentially grow the vape market.
However, the US government’s response to the growth of vaping has mostly been to label it as an epidemic, despite its primary intent of being an effective and safer alternative to smoking. This has been making it difficult for vape companies and businesses, and New York vape shop owner Stewart Bowers stood before a panel on flavored vape products hosted by the FDA In New York University to defend flavors as a boon for vaping as a tobacco alternative while critics, including Matthew Myers, call for a nationwide ban—perhaps the biggest threat that vape businesses are facing right now.
Critics of flavors in vaping view it as a gateway for the youth into nicotine addiction. Their conjecture is that you can’t prevent young people from exploring and experimenting with attractive flavors such as mango or desert flavors, so we must eliminate these options.
In response, Stewart Bowers stated that unflavored vape products just don’t sell, because flavors is the thing that works. To summarize his testimony, in order to help smokers quit tobacco, the deck should be stacked to favor the customer, and flavored eliquids help greatly with that.
FDA has since shifted their focus from a total ban on flavored e-liquids to only allowing them to be sold by stores with age-restricted areas. But the side effect of this restriction is the increased demand for illegal vape cartridges.
While the invention and proliferation of e-cigarettes and vaping had undergone substantial progress, it exploded even more with the advent of JUUL and nicotine salt eliquids. JUUL’s popularity is shown to be due to its design, being small and almost indistinguishable from a flash drive, when in fact we know it was due to Juul being extremely simple (no buttons) and satisfying.
Technology culture writer Nitasha Tiku surmises that while the company may not have intended their product to be especially appealing to younger users, the JUUL has “the same of convenience, ease, discretion, and clean design that they’re used to from Macbooks and iPhones.”
JUUL founders Adam Bowen and James Monsees were a couple of graduate students who found themselves wasting a lot of time going out to smoke, so they decided to do their thesis for MS Product Design at Stanford University on their own ultra-compact electronic cigarette design.
What they came up with was what we now know as JUUL, which debut in 2015 with an ad campaign called #Vaporized. The campaign was criticized for having used the same tactics as the tobacco industry did in the mid-20th century to sell cigarettes.
There’s also the question of nicotine delivery. Freebase nicotine in conventional e-liquid delivers small doses of nicotine over time, which is not equivalent to the way cigarettes deliver nicotine. But through the use of benzoic acid, nicotine salt eliquid was made and made JUUL an even better tobacco substitute.
The JUUL took off and the company was worth over $2 billion in 2018, which then rose to over $38 billion in valuation after Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris Companies) acquired a 38% stake in JUUL in December 2018.
Its initial success was mostly due to Bowen and Monsees having tackled e-cigarette design from a tech-savvy perspective, which happened to have matched with the sensibilities of the youth.
“Every aspect of JUUL is designed to make it a complete substitute for smoking. So, it had to hit on these key elements—the amount of nicotine, the rate of nicotine, the sound that it makes—we felt were all important aspects to making a complete and easy replacement for cigarettes,” said Adam Bowen, reflecting on designing the JUUL.
“They made a better mousetrap. They made a device that really worked. They made it simple and they made it satisfying,” commented Kurt Sonderegger, who had been an early employee of JUUL before founding Cafe Racer Vape.
Regarding vaping among minors, Adam Bowen has stated that they’re doing what they can to prevent further proliferation of social media content that had minors using their products. He maintains that their intention was for the product to be used by adults and JUUL never intended to market to minors.
JUUL has taken the extra mile to show commitment to this position, even taking down their social media pages and removing certain flavors from their catalog that may be more attractive to younger users. Their advertisements carry notices that the JUUL is for adult smokers, and that non-smokers and non-vapers shouldn’t start.
Meanwhile, their partnership with Altria is seen by JUUL as a win-win as the vape company rises in value while also gaining access to the shelf space of brands like Marlboro. They’re also able to advertise JUUL directly to smokers in their cigarette packets, which can potentially grow their market.
Tobacco companies like Philip Morris International had seen the potential of vaping right from the get-go. PMI had shipped 740 billion cigarettes in 2018, but they’re aware that vaping is encroaching on their territory. But instead of fighting it, they seek to harness its power for themselves.
Back in 2009, PMI built a state-of-the-art research facility to come up with products that can create the same effect of combustible cigarettes without actually burning tobacco.
Serge Maeder, director of product research in PMI Science and Innovation, talks on the film about creating a “smoke-free future.” But despite stating that PMI is putting most of their resources into creating these products, the contrary is the reality.
Martin Dockrell, the tobacco control program lead of Public Health England, surmises that if the reduced risk tobacco market is where the money really is in the foreseeable future, tobacco companies will do everything they can to head that direction.
While they’re indeed putting some effort into creating their own reduced-risk tobacco products, they’ve also been buying up independent vape companies left and right, as mentioned.
Matthew Myers, president of the non-profit organization Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, surmises that they’re really aiming to dominate both the conventional cigarette market and the vaping market.
“They get both. They can sell as many (cigarettes) as they can possibly sell; sell as many e-cigarettes as they can possibly sell. They get the marketplace either way it moves,” said Myers.
Fran Thompson, principal of Jonathan Law High School in Midford, Connecticut, first spotted vaping on school grounds around two years before the interview. He found that just about every group in the school were vaping, whether it’s the drama club, sports teams, honor students, or so on. Vaping is shown here as having become ubiquitous with high school life... but the real question is: Where are these kids getting their vapes from?!
The film cites reports of student vaping in high schools all across America. Matthew Myers showed his concern for the sudden rise of teenage vaping within the period from 2017 to 2018, calling it “unprecedented in our history.”
Myers does cite the statistic of high school tobacco users from 1996 and present-day—from around 36% to less than 9%. There is indeed a tremendous decrease of tobacco usage among high school students within the past two decades, and much of it is shown in the film as tobacco being no longer in vogue in today’s younger generations.
Findings from the National Youth Tobacco Survey in 2018 is then shown, with US high school e-cigarette users amounting to 1.73 million in 2017 and 3.05 million in 2018—a 78% increase. Much of this is linked to the JUUL’s meteoric rise in popularity.
The four female high school students interviewed for the film related their disgust for combustible cigarettes and how they came upon the JUUL. They also related how it can be hidden in clothes and vaped in class discreetly, making the practice more pervasive in today’s classrooms.
The high school kids got into vaping not because they were trying to quit tobacco, but because the practice was seen as cool. There is indeed a valid concern regarding minors using vape products, especially in a school environment and regulations need to be put in place to make these adult products not as accessible to teenagers.
“The biggest cause of preventable death in England is smoking,” states Martin Dockrell. “We have about 60 million smokers and 70,000 deaths every year. And worst of all, it affects mostly disadvantaged communities the hardest. But in the last five years, smoking rates have fallen by about a quarter.”
“When you see somebody vaping, you either see a nicotine addict getting their fix, or you see a smoker who isn’t smoking,” says Martin Dockrell. “I’ve worked in public health for thirty years; it makes my heart sing every time I see a smoker not smoking.”
Martin also added: “Look, if the choice is between e-cigarettes and fresh air – choose fresh air. if the choice is between e-cigarettes and smoking – chose e-cigarettes.”
Louise Ross, former manager of Leicester Stop Smoking Service, was wary when she first encountered of e-cigarettes as a way to quit smoking.
“I had these fears that it would renormalize smoking, that young people will get a hold of them and start using them and become addicted to nicotine,” Ross said about her first impression of vaping.
However, she eventually changed her mind and actually became an advocate of vaping as a viable alternative to tobacco. She started offering e-cigarettes in the Stop Smoking Service to help smokers quit, and this radical move would see incredible results.
Government and health care work differently in the United Kingdom, and it seems they have acknowledged the role of vaping as an effective tobacco alternative. But they also want to make it clear that vaping should be reserved for smokers who are looking to quit.
There is no teen vaping problem in the UK. The British vape market is more tightly regulated, unlike that of the US. Vape companies are not allowed to advertise their products in the country like how JUUL did in the US.
Nicotine levels in eliquid are also restricted. When JUUL launched in the UK, it did so with less than half the nicotine in their pods compared to their American launch.
Matthew Myers agrees with the UK approach to vaping and sees the contrast between it and how the US is handling vaping as a lesson on how addressing it in a calm and pragmatic manner is best and the lack thereof yields a different and disturbing result.
How the US state and federal governments have been responding to the recent slew of lung injury cases this year is the polar opposite of the UK approach—not with calm pragmatism, but with panicked dismissiveness.
Vaping bans in the US threaten both the vape industry and the ex-smokers who took to vaping to quit tobacco and better their health like their British counterparts.
As with the other episodes of Broken, this episode shows in a straightforward manner a perceived problem born and nurtured by an industry for profit at the expense of society.
The documentary doesn’t just land on one side. We think that it was created comprehensively and fairly backed-up with solid facts, contrary to how the mainstream media and anti-tobacco people would portray vaping today.
In this case, vaping is seen as both a way to help eliminate the #1 preventable death in the world (smoking-related) but also as something, left unchecked, could lead to a new generation of young adults addicted to nicotine.
It is indeed a crucial issue to be acted upon, but considering how significant teenage smoking rate has decreased from 35% to 5%, the biggest takeaway is that smoking has almost been ALMOST eliminated with teens.
In the midst of controversy with vaping-related lung injuries due to illegal THC vape cartridges, the timing of release for this documentary couldn’t have been more perfect for that agenda.
Watching this documentary doesn’t only shed some light on how society, especially how teens are interacting with the vape products today, but also unveils some underscoring need for vape education and regulation.
Our take away from this film is mostly positive. This is probably the first mainstream film that focuses on vaping - and while it does focus a lot of time on the controversies, it does present a fairly balanced view of the industry and vaping as a life-saving option for the millions of people who continue to smoke, especially with the inclusion of the more steady minded UK folks who add much-needed balance to the entire episode.
We also believe that the way to prevent teens from vaping is to vigorously support age restrictions on the sale of vaping products and punish those who are caught selling vaping products to minors - just as we do with alcohol. With the Trump administration days or weeks away from announcing new legislation on vaping, let's hope that they focus on the balance between health benefits vs the youth vaping "epidemic" that is entirely solvable with proper age verification in the various sales channels. Certainly limiting flavors is not the answer.