As an R.J. Cutler-directed documentary series living up to its title in every way imaginable, Netflix’s ‘Big Vape: The Rise & Fall of Juul’ can only be described as equal parts baffling and intriguing. That’s because it delves into the way a scrappy yet well-intended electronic cigarette startup managed to turn the entire tobacco/nicotine industry around in more ways than one in mere years. Thus, of course, there’s a significant light upon Co-founder James Monsees too — so now, if you simply wish to learn more about him as well as his current standing, we’ve got the details for you.
Who is James Monsees?
It was reportedly back when James was just a young boy growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, that he first developed an interest in engineering, only for it to continue expanding as the years passed. In fact, according to archival footage utilized in the original production, his parents once candidly told him he was more interested in vacuum cleaner parts than in actual, suitable toys as a child. Then there was the fact he built/fixed a car for himself by the time he was 16, making it quite a surprise once he enrolled at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, for a Bachelor’s in Physics/Studio Art.
The truth is James’ passion for product design/development was as intense as it was for the technical side of things, which is why he’d picked the major he did prior to paving his way to California. We say this because he ostensibly served at Metaphase Design Group for over a year between 2002 and 2003 before stepping onto the wondrous campus of Stanford University to earn his Master’s. It was here that he came across Adam Bowen for the first time, just for them to team up to work on several social or environmental projects as they’d quickly realized their values wholly aligned.
Moreover, and more importantly, James’ gifts as an artist as well as scientist complimented Adam’s competitiveness plus engineering skills to the extreme, enabling them to achieve greatness. So once these consciously guilty smokers got the idea of helping others like them quit while still maintaining the social and “hit” aspects without using tobacco, they immediately got to work. The duo did face many raised eyebrows along the way since nicotine remained a key element for them, which in itself is incredibly addicting, yet they couldn’t let go of this public health opportunity.
“Smoking was always a contentious issue in my family,” James once said, per the Netflix original. “My mom’s father; he smoked a lot. He smoked many packs of cigarettes a day and died at a sadly early age. I hated cigarettes. Every time I picked one up, I felt conflicted about it.” The fact millions of others have either died or currently face some sort of lung disease also bothered him and Adam, so they continued working on their idea following graduation to make a change. Their first product was hence launched under the name Ploom in 2007, followed by PAX (which actually unintentionally became prominent for marijuana use) and finally came Juul in 2015.
According to reports, Juul (or Juul Labs) was spun into a separate organization in 2017, where James resumed his role as Co-founder as well as Chief Product Officer (CPO) — he had at one point served as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) at PAX Labs, but it was from 2011 to 2015. It turns out the reason for his demotion by Board Members was the backlash they faced following Juul’s original campaign because this e-cigarette was made to seem like a lifestyle product rather than a mere gateway to help smokers quit, per the documentary. But alas, neither he nor Adam nor any other professional could’ve ever imagined that while they were gradually apparently fulfilling their mission, they’d also end up opening pandora’s box for teens.
Where is James Monsees Now?
As an undeniable leader in the tobacco-free nicotine industry by 2019, James was actually called to testify in a congressional hearing over Juul’s alleged public role in the “teen vaping epidemic.” However, this co-founder defended his company at every step, even if it meant evading some hard questions while answering several more with utmost honesty – yet he largely wasn’t believed. He told lawmakers Juul “never wanted any non-nicotine users, and certainly not anyone underage” as consumers before conceding that although they made mistakes, their mission was well-intended.
James added, “I understand the criticism of some of our past actions, but we moved on very quickly” by shutting down all social media pages and pulling several flavored pods out of retail stores to prevent teen usage. He also said, “We do not claim for Juul to be a cessation product. The history of cessation products have extremely low efficacy. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve here. If we can market to consumers an alternative and sell it right next to cigarettes, then we can actually make something work.”
James then reiterated that Juul’s goal has always been to “eliminate cigarettes for good… This is an industry that has done wrong for a truly long period of time. We are changing that from the inside out with products delivered by innovative people and a company that is 100% committed to changing the fabric of this market.” Nevertheless, by the end of 2019, Juul had to call back all its flavored pods to help keep the vaping device out of teen hands — yet their legal battle concerning this isn’t over.
As for James, he decided to begin a new chapter of his life once Juul’s management changed again in late 2019 to include some former tobacco company executives in positions of power. It was in March 2020 that he announced he was resigning as CPO but would remain a part of active business as an advisor as well as a board member — he essentially took a step back following nearly 15 years of service. Though the reasoning this then-40-year-old gave behind his decision was his interest in spending more time with his family as a relative newlywed, plus maybe pursuing other personal and professional interests.
“As both a founder and a major shareholder, I could not be more proud of the thoughtful actions that are being taken and the people in whose hands I’m leaving the company for its next great chapter,” James wrote, in part, in his internal email announcing his departure. He even expressed complete confidence in their new Chief Executive Officer (CEO) KC Crosthwaite prior to continuing, “The company reset and the actions we recently took to combat the unacceptable levels of youth use are both necessary and the right thing to do.” Coming to his current standing; well, this designer, thinker, and investor has actually since preferred to maintain his distance from the limelight.