Vape pens were supposed to replace cigarettes. Healthier (in theory). Less smelly (unless you hate the odor of aerosolized fruit). Easy to carry than a pack of smokes and a lighter.
But industry sales have started to drop from previous highs, which weren’t all that high compared to traditional tobacco to begin with. One of the largest vape pen companies, NJOY, declared bankruptcy.
There’s an outlier, though, from a company that made its name selling vaporizers for pot. Juul, from Pax Labs, looks nothing like the gas station vape pens with their cheesy, glowing blue tips. It’s black and flat with sharp edges, like half a pack of Darth Vader’s chewing gum. It has a tiny LED that lets you know when it’s charging in its button-sized magnetic USB dock, but doesn’t look embarrassing when taking a puff. And it’s designed to be held in ways that don’t look *quite* as douchey as normal e-cigarettes. Cupped in the hand, with the business end barely protruding from the thumb and index finger, using a Juul looks almost demure.
The nicotine kick, on the other hand, is eye-widening. Using a proprietary nicotine salt mixture that Pax Labs says is “more satisfying” than competitors’ blends, the vapor that comes from the little replaceable Juul pods will wake anyone right up. It’s a 5% strength; a typical e-cig might range from 1% to 2.5%, but rarely higher. The higher nicotine percentage vapor gives me—a nicotine addict for two decades—a swoon even with a little puff.
“All the products on the market use, other than Juul, use nicotine in its freebase form, so pure molecular nicotine,” says Adam Bowen, CTO of Pax Labs. “If you look at tobacco leaves or the tobacco that’s in a cigarette, [a freebase is] not the state of nicotine in the leaf. What you find there are nicotine salts. It’s nicotine but combined with organic acids to form a salt, kind of like table salt but with different elements. That subtle change in chemistry makes a huge difference in terms of satisfaction. It changes the rate at which nicotine is absorbed into your body when you inhale, and that’s the critical piece that we discovered and put into the formulation with JUUL.”
What it definitely is: still addictive. It is, after all, nicotine, a drug that may not be as terrible as the worst offenders on the street, but certainly one that encourages a daily interaction that is hard to let go.
But for those of us who have made a sort of peace with the fact that we’re not quite ready to kick the habit, Juul’s user experience is about as good as it gets: It doesn’t have a cheesy fake, plastic, glowing “ash” at the tip; it doesn’t roll off a table; it’s small enough to be slipped in the watch pocket of a pair of jeans, with an extra pod just in case the day gets super stressful. Juul is discreet, easily rechargeable, and refillable simply by replacing a little plastic pod filled with the proprietary nicotine salt liquid, which Juul sells in a recurring subscription as well as in retail outlets like gas stations–if you can find it. For much of last year, Juul pods were sold out in vape shops across the country; Pax Labs couldn’t produce enough to meet demand, which it estimated at around 5 million pods a month, while its production was only reaching around a million. (The plastic pods with integrated heating elements are manufactured in China, then shipped to North Carolina to be filled with the nicotine liquid.)
It’s also expensive, compared to rest of the vaping world, especially for those who have moved to the larger, refillable vaping rigs that use off-the-shelf freebase nicotine “juice.” When I was buying my own e-liquid from retailers, I was spending about $30 a month; having switched fully to Juul, I’m blowing at least a hundred a month on the proprietary pods. And sometimes more, especially if forced to buy from retailers in NYC, who often jack up the MSRP from a suggested $15 to over $25 for a four-pack. And even though I’m the cheapest jerk around, I almost don’t care.
I asked Tyler Goldman, the CEO of Pax Labs, how he felt about being a dealer of an exclusive, patented nicotine delivery system; a decidedly unchill business adjunct for a company whose previous success had been in the marijuana vaporizer business, where the best suppliers are often small, local growers.
“Right now [our focus] is just producing great product,” says Goldman. “I do think if you look at the model today, it’s similar to Keurig, where we have a device and we have a formulation, but also like Keurig had lots of providers providing different flavors but in the K-Cup. I think there’s a lot of ways that this could go.”
“I think one of the reasons why the closed-end system has done so well is we’ve been able to produce a really quality-controlled experience, whereas the open systems I think have been challenged because of the lack of quality control.” Goldman points to Apple. “You want to improve a category [by] providing an end-to-end experience.”