Let’s face ithumanity is facing one too many crises right now. It’s an eerily ideal time for The New York Times and FX’s jointly produced series of standalone documentaries, which have been airing periodically for over a year now. Featuring reporting by the newspaper’s staff, The New York Times Presents is a series of character-driven investigations into pertinent topics like the coronavirus ravaging New York City, the death of Breonna Taylor, and Britney Spears’ fight to free herself from her conservatorship. The latest is excruciatingly timely as it charts the rise of e-cigarette company Juul and its instrumental role in spreading a nicotine epidemic among young people. Like most of these films, Move Fast & Vape Things is straightforward and expertly pieced together. At just over an hour long, it covers essential facts and interviewees, including Times reporters Julie Cresswell and Sheila Kaplan. But it’s also just scratching the surface of a labyrinthine issue.
The film opens with two parallel worlds: the sprawling tech industry in San Francisco, where the Juul was birthed, and a more rural area, where teenager Jackie Franklin rides her bike. We soon see how the Juul, which was conceived by Stanford graduates James Monsees and Adam Bowen, invades Jackie’s coming-of-age, as she became addicted to vaping. Director John Pappas quietly, efficiently builds both worlds. Franklin’s story is a hard-hitting visual representation of the damage caused by e-cigarettes, facilitated by Juul’s marketing, which was catered to millennials. Who else did they think would indulge in flavors like ice watermelon limeade vaping juice?
Move Fast & Vape Things follows Monsees and Bowen’s quick rise once they established Juul in 2015. They’d actually met a decade before that, and the two smokers embarked on a mission to invent a product that would help eliminate combustible cigarettes and hopefully save lives in the process. The Times reporters and even former Juul employees who appear in the documentary suggest that while this was the goal early on, it started to change over time. The film doesn’t take sides, but it’s hard to ignore how damning the footage is. At one point, Monsees is giving a Ted Talk about smoking, calling it “sexy” and that it “exudes personality.” One of the company’s first employees, Kurt Sonderegger, calls it “the Apple of vaping industry as far as design goes.” A title card reveals that Juul’s vaporizer contained twice the amount of nicotine as any other device on the market.
This technology-driven, apparently less-harmful substitute became coveted by millennials and minors. Even if they didn’t intend for it to happen initially, the company’s top leaders and board members began to capitalize on this information. Juul’s former employees claim it went from being mission-driven to growth-based. Times reporter Sheila Kaplan says rich investors showed off their luxurious lifestyle to convince Bowen and Monsees to continue to expand the market and earn more money. The Juul cofounders began to move away from their initial objective, because who wouldn’t want to be a billionaire? But the film neither expands on this information nor gives any concrete names of the investors. Even though a quick Google search can provide this information (Tiger Global Management, Fidelity Investments, Tao Capital, etc.), Move Fast & Vape Things doesn’t dwell on it. It prevents a detailed picture from forming, given that the investors and board members changed the company’s agenda when it picked up steam within a couple years of launching.
The documentary features critical interviews with Ryan Woodring, former director of market operations; Erica Halverson, former marketing manager; Steven Bailie, the creative director of a campaign called #Vaporized. They talk about being recruited to help advertise Juul pods and bringing them to a bigger market. An early commercial featured pop music, bright colors, and youth dancing with vapes in hand. Stephen Colbert was also quick to call it out in an episode of The Late Show. The ad ignores the heartbreaking journey of Jackie Franklin and her family, including her mother Janice, who also appears in the documentary. Jackie details the first time she used a Juul pod—“It tasted like candy”—and how, in the next hour, she started feeling sick. Woodring had a similar experience. Its addictive contents sent Jackie’s life spiraling, but she is on the mend now.
Move Fast & Vape Things also succinctly looks at the FDA’s investigation into the rise of e-cigarettes. Once again, the documentary only provides a snapshot of how the federal agency tackles this growing business, one that wants to transform the gigantic tobacco industry. Their inspection has been ongoing for years now, with the most recent update coming in only a week before the documentary’s premiere. This latest report reveals that the FDA has further delayed taking any action against Juul’s vaping products. At present, 3.6 million young kids (middle school- and high school-age) are deemed to be using them based on official surveys. Former commissioner Scott Gottlieb appears in the film, claiming that he had warned the company about the Juul causing early addiction in teens. When asked if he wished he had done more during his tenure, his answer is simply along the lines of “hindsight is 20/20.” It’s a crucial question, one that points to how beneficial it would have been for the filmmakers to do similar prodding throughout the documentary.
The Juul company wanted to revolutionize its industry, so it was a shock when Altria Group (parent company of Marlboro) acquired a 35% stake in 2018 for $12.8 billion. In the same year, studies found a 78% increase in Juul vaping about high school students and 48% in middle school students who were Juul users. Altria’s arrival into the picture brought more attention to the company, and Monsees was even called to testify in front of Congress in 2019; footage from that day shows him to be absolutely unprepared and nervous. Juul stopped selling flavored products in 2019, but the company has nearly 2000 lawsuits to battle now. The state of North Carolina became the first group to successfully sue Juul over their teen-centered marketing, winning a $40 million settlement. Move Fast & Vape Things rushes through these developments towards the end, but the film is still a solid effort to capture the many moving parts. It almost acts as the first chapter of what will probably make a riveting, complicated, and agonizing novel.