Whatever happened to Juul?

Sure, millions of Americans still vape. But what became of the company that was synonymous with the widely established alternative to smoking?

In Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul, Netflix seeks to answer that question. Released last week, the four-part docuseries has quickly become one of the streaming giant’s most-watched shows.

While Big Vape taps several of the all-too-familiar dramatic tropes — ambitious leaders undone by hubris and greed — the series reveals that the true culprit in Juul’s undoing was the company’s marketing practices.

From its origin as a Stanford University-based startup seeking to disrupt the $90 billion per year tobacco industry to its evolution into a nearly $40 billion colossus, Juul advertised early and often. The company’s initial mission was noble: To help transition smokers to a less harmful e-cigarette or vape and, in the process, address one of the most challenging public health threats of the past half-century.

Big Vape points to the “move fast and break things” mindset as a major contributor to Juul’s downfall. But ultimately it was the company’s decision to market an addictive product to children that ended its brief run.

Vapes that look like iPhones

Over the course of a few years, Juul went from vaping prototypes that occasionally shot juice into users’ mouths to “small, dark and handsome” devices that later became known as the “iPhone of e-cigs.” Responding to consumer feedback, the company shifted its focus to vaping devices that contained a higher nicotine dosage and a variety of fruity flavors. Ultimately, those flavors prompted teenage users to try the product and got them addicted.

By the mid-2010s, Juul had tasked brand ambassadors with promoting its products via word of mouth and social media. Brand value surged as more of the so-called cool kids became Juul loyalists. of the Internet age used Juuls.

Big Vape pays special attention to Juul’s decision to hire a pair of marketing and artistic directors to change the public perception of vaping. The 2015 launch campaign took inspiration from Brooklyn’s hipster vibe and saw the company position itself as a lifestyle brand. The subsequent social media push was led by a curated group of influencers and resulted in a brief takeover of Times Square billboards.

However, it was Juul’s Vaporized campaign that received the most pushback. With their colorful lights, upbeat music and attractive people, the spots mirrored commercials aired decades earlier by cigarette manufacturers.

Indeed, while Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds could no longer advertise their products on TV or in Times Square, Juul could.

“Juul, in its advertising, faithfully followed the playbook of Big Tobacco companies and their cigarette brands,” says Dr. Robert Jackler, a tobacco marketing expert at Stanford University. “They took the very worst elements of tobacco marketing.”

Marketing takes off — and crashes down

Juul’s advertising efforts in 2015 planted the seeds for the mainstream popularity it experienced in 2016. Whether it was the Juul pod challenge going viral on social media or fans posting pictures featuring their e-cig, the company effectively marketed its way into the zeitgeist.

Still, the good vibes didn’t last long. The documentary details Juul’s descent, from scarcity issues throughout 2017 to the growing ire of FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to tobacco mainstay Altria taking a 35% stake in the company in late 2018.

Trust in the company faded quickly, fueled in large part by teen hospitalizations due to vaping-related illnesses. While many of these cases were related to black-market e-cigs, Juul was the most recognizable brand in the space — and thus became the obvious target for angry parents and federal health officials. Former users responded in kind, as the #LungLove movement on social media galvanized efforts to stop kids from vaping.


Despite multiple attempts by the Food and Drug Administration to force its products off the market, over the summer Juul introduced a new e-cigarette, Juul2 System, which uses age-verification technology to restrict underage use. The company then submitted a Premarket Tobacco Product Application to the FDA.

Where the saga goes from here is anyone’s guess but federal authorities seem intent on continuing the crackdown on both smoking and vaping. To that end, days after Big Vape premiered, the FDA banned the sale of R.J. Reynolds’ Vuse Alto menthol and fruit-flavored electronic cigarettes, which had become increasingly popular among kids. The agency also requested White House clearance on a policy that would ultimately ban menthol cigarettes.

As of October 2023, Juul has spent nearly $3 billion in settlements with thousands of plaintiffs, including paying $462 million to six states and Washington D.C.