The Devil's playbook Big tobacco, Juul, and the addiction of a new generation

Lauren Etter

Book - 2021

"Big Tobacco meets Silicon Valley in this corporate exposé of what happened when two of the most notorious industries collided-and the vaping epidemic was born. Howard Willard lusted after Juul. As the CEO of tobacco giant Philip Morris's parent company, and a veteran of the industry's long fight to avoid being regulated out of existence, he grew obsessed with a prize he believed could save his company-the e-cigarette, a product with all the addictive upside of the original without the same apparent health risks and bad press. Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, Adam Bowen and James Monsees began work on a device meant to save lives and destroy Big Tobacco, only to end up baking the industry's DNA into their invention's and marketing. Ultimately, Juul's e-cigarette was so effective, so market-dominating, that it put the company on a collision course with Philip Morris and sparked one of the most explosive public health crises in recent memory. In a deeply reported account, award-winning journalist Lauren Etter tells a riveting story of greed and deception in one of the biggest botched deals in business history. Etter shows how Philip Morris's struggle to innovate left Willard desperate to acquire Juul, even as his own team sounded alarms about the startup's reliance on underage customers. And she shows how Juul's executives negotiated a lavish deal that let them pocket the lion's share of Philip Morris's $12.8 billion investment while government regulators and furious parents mounted a campaign to hold the company's feet to the fire. The Devil's Playbook is the inside story of how Juul's embodiment of Silicon Valley's "move fast and break things" ethos wrought havoc on American health, and how a beleaguered tobacco company was seduced by the promise of a new generation of addicted customers. With both companies' eyes on the financial prize, neither anticipated the sudden outbreak of vaping-linked deaths that would terrorize a nation, crater Juul's value, end Willard's career, and show the costs in human life of the rush to riches--while Juul's founders, investors, and employees walked away with a windfall"--

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Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 338.767/Etter Checked In
New York : Crown [2021]
Main Author
Lauren Etter (author)
First edition
Physical Description
xxv, 468 pages ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Prologue: On the Side of the Angels
  • 1. The Quest
  • 2. The Good Guys
  • 3. The Cigarette Maker's Dilemma
  • 4. On the Hunt
  • 5. A New Mark
  • 6. A Juul is Born
  • 7. A Calgary Stampede
  • 8. A Courtship
  • 9. Buzz Factor
  • 10. The Experiments
  • 11. Move Fast. Break Laws
  • 12. A Nicotine Compromise
  • 13. Project Tree
  • 14. Atherton
  • 15. Plan A
  • 16. San Francisco Strikes Back
  • 17. The Juulionaires
  • 18. The Takeover
  • 19. Panic
  • 20. The Bellagio
  • 21. A Bloodbath
  • 22. Veni Vidi Vici
  • Afterword
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

Nicotine is addictive. Ironically, so is the profitability of nicotine, and it is this incredibly seductive lure that acclaimed investigative journalist Etter deconstructs in her compulsively readable David-and-Goliath tale of two companies inextricably yoked to the phenomenon known as vaping. For years, Altria, the manufacturer of Marlboro cigarettes, enjoyed an unassailable market position, until the Tobacco Wars of the 1990s forced the company to drastically curtail marketing strategies geared to the lucrative teen demographic. Meanwhile, in health-conscious California, two Stanford grad students forced to conceal their ciggie breaks looked for a workaround that would deliver all the punch of nicotine seemingly without the harmful side effects of smoking. The result was the Juul vaping system. As Juul's e-cigarette business lit up the marketplace, Altria conjured a deal that eventually sent both companies up in smoke. Writing with an objective clarity and dishing like an insider-hipster, Etter offers a powerful indictment of both sides of the same corrupt coin, delivering an eye-opening account of an industry shamelessly gaslighting customers, employees, investors, and government regulators in pursuit of profits over principles. Encyclopedic in scope yet intimate in appeal, Etter's timely exposé uncovers the Machiavellian intrigue, greed, and arrogance at the core of one of America's most lethal industries.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

How the electronic cigarette industry emerged, evolved, and imploded beneath the weight of controversy and grievous misguidance. In this comprehensive scrutiny of the vaping craze and the business behind it, Bloomberg News investigative reporter Etter focuses on two major contributors. Faced with declining adult consumption metrics throughout the 1990s, cigarette titan Altria (previously known as Philip Morris Companies Inc.) and its former upper-level executive Howard Willard III, a tobacco-industry lifer, were desperate for a comeback. Etter seamlessly infuses this story with that of tech wunderkinds and ex-smokers James Monsees and Adam Bowen, who strived to develop a nicotine delivery prototype in 2006, positioned as a beneficial "public health contribution" and an alternative to more harmfully combustive tobacco products. The author diligently chronicles the numerous redesigns of their nicotine liquid vaporizing invention, the Juul, as well as the dogged attention from tobacco executives, whom Etter categorizes as "not unlike spies" as they grew gluttonous for opportunities to collaborate or create their own version of the vape pen. Despite "gung-ho dealmaker" Willard's former contradictory affiliations with smoking cessation programs, he forged ahead, sacrificed public safety, and became a "Juulionaire" with many others. As the interests of big tobacco and Silicon Valley came together, the e-cigarette wars declared Juul the victor, though the product became mired in corruption regarding the maximization of nicotine's psychoactive effects and deceptive advertising of candied flavor variations targeting youth on social media. The backlash from public safety watchdogs was brutal, and as consumer trust faltered, an onslaught of personal injury lawsuits sealed the product's fate. Etter illuminates the crucial missteps that can occur when greed and poor leadership obscure the vision of an enterprising product. Armed with an immense body of research and insider interview material, the author digs deep into the controversial industry to reveal the avarice, scandal, corporate egotism, and rampant "political knife fights." Pair this with Jamie Ducharme's Big Vape to get the entire sordid story in meticulous detail. Riveting journalism that probes the triple threat of vaping, nicotine addiction, and corporate greed. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

1 The Quest Youth comes but once in a lifetime. --­Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Long before the dream of a perfect e-­cigarette was a gleam in the eye of Howard A. Willard III--­and before, as Altria's CEO, he would make a $12.8 billion investment in an e-­cigarette start-­up that addicted millions of American children to nicotine--­the lifelong tobacco executive held one of the most paradoxical jobs a tobacco executive could have: He was head of Philip Morris's Youth Smoking Prevention program. On its face the job was a study in cognitive dissonance. Willard was supposed to help convince the very same people that Philip Morris once viewed as future customers that, in fact, buying his company's product was a bad idea. It was a testament to the awkward position in which the tobacco industry found itself, in the early 2000s, that the company was running a program to discourage youth smoking. And yet the program was a crucial down payment on the price of staying in business. De-­normalizing smoking, particularly among youth, was the driving heart of the Master Settlement Agreement, which not only banned tobacco companies from sticking their products in movies and on billboards but forbade them from advertising cigarettes to children in any way. No more Joe Camel backpacks, or Marlboro Man T-­shirts. By foreclosing tobacco companies' ability to deploy its bottomless ad budgets, slick marketing, and iconic imagery to reach adolescents, the core demographic once referred to by tobacco executives as "replacement customers," the legal settlement ushered in a new era for the tobacco industry that proved to be nothing less than tectonic. Philip Morris didn't start the youth prevention program out of pure altruism. The tobacco settlement required the signatory companies to "promulgate or reaffirm" a set of "corporate culture commitments" related to youth smoking, and also to "designate" an executive devoted to reducing the consumption of youth tobacco use. Moreover, the company's Youth Smoking Prevention program was a good look in a moment when the company's legal issues were far from fully resolved. In the spring of 2000, as a jury in a Florida class-­action lawsuit weighed whether to award plaintiffs billions of dollars in damages, the then Philip Morris USA chief executive, Michael Szymanczyk, took the witness stand and testified about the company's new youth prevention efforts in a bid to persuade the jury to go easy on his company. It was critical for Philip Morris to demonstrate to regulators and courts and lawmakers that it was committed to being in "alignment" with society writ large, and willing to sacrifice the pipeline of future smokers for the greater good, not an easy feat for a company that sold Marlboro, the most popular brand among high schoolers. Serving as the company's face in this effort was a job that required a particular kind of company man--­equal parts aggression and ambition, with an iron-­fisted devotion to his maligned employer. Howard Willard was that kind of company man. The son of a restorer of historic homes and grandson of an antiques salesman, Willard was raised in the quaint town of Wethersfield, Connecticut, an old Puritan settlement and seaport for local farmers and merchants who sent their flaxseed and red onions to the West Indies. With a tousled head of curls and studious glasses, Willard fit in among the clubby circles of the Northeast. He graduated from Colgate University, the preppy liberal arts school nestled in the rolling hills of upstate New York's dairy country, where he studied computer science and economics. He received an MBA from the University of Chicago, one of the top business schools in the country. Willard learned early on what it took to be a Master of the Universe. In 1985 he got a job as an analyst working mergers and acquisitions at Salomon Brothers, the storied, now-­defunct Wall Street investment bank that fell from grace during a bond-­trading scandal and became the basis of Tom Wolfe's novel Bonfire of the Vanities and Michael Lewis's insider account in Liar's Poker. He then moved to Bain & Company, the consulting firm, where in 1991 one of the accounts given to him was Philip Morris USA. Willard was impressed with the talent of the management at the cigarette company. The following year, in November 1992, when Philip Morris's CFO, Harry Steele, offered him a job, he took it. With his gangly six-­foot-­six frame and goofy smile, Willard stood out at Philip Morris. One former executive described the younger Willard as a spitting image of the actor Judge Reinhold from when he starred in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even though he had an affable salesman's personality, he wasn't a natural extrovert. His loud guffaws and jokes sometimes seemed strained, almost deliberately designed to fit into the backslapping, good-­old-­boy culture at the rough-­and-­tumble cigarette company. Another colleague described him as a little like Eddie Haskell from Leave It to Beaver. "That's the vibe that pops into my head. Like, 'You look lovely today, Mrs. Cleaver,' " remembered the former executive, adopting the television character's ingratiating voice. "He was always nice. And well liked. But I would not say dynamic in any way. And not assertive. He would speak when spoken to." It was perhaps Willard's willingness to please, combined with his technical acumen, that allowed him to thrive among the ranks of Philip Morris's rigid, hierarchical culture that prized people who fell in line and respected authority. In April 1995, an internal career planning document extolled Willard's accomplishments, noting that he "demonstrated comprehensive strategic planning skills" and "leads by personal demonstration." In his Midwest VP sales position, Willard emerged as a loyal company soldier, personally writing letters to clients urging them to donate to the company's political action committee and to contact their lawmakers to express displeasure with pieces of legislation that might be detrimental to the cigarette business. "Once the FDA gets its foot in the door," Willard wrote in one letter, "there is little doubt it will quickly move in the direction of banning tobacco products." That public-­policy role served as a natural segue into a job as vice president of information services, before he was eventually put in charge of the company's new e-­commerce division. Working at a tobacco company has never been for the faint of heart, and it's long had a way of toughening people up. Michael Szymanczyk, chief executive of Philip Morris USA through the turn of the century, once recalled when anti-­tobacco activists showed up at his home in Connecticut just before Christmas and hung a wreath laced with cigarette butts on his front door while singing crude Christmas carols. Even though his wife's feelings were hurt, he was unmoved: "I can't be distracted by people like that," he said. Willard ultimately never got distracted, and as a result of finding his rhythm early on at Philip Morris he powered through promotions faster than others. Ultimately he was named a member of the Philip Morris senior leadership team, and, starting in September 2000, he began reporting directly to Szymanczyk. That meant Willard was learning from the best. Szymanczyk was a well loved, preternaturally gifted executive whose towering physique at six feet eight inches was only outmatched by his booming voice, which seemed to overpower anybody in his orbit. Szymanczyk had a successful career at Procter & Gamble before going to Kraft and ultimately landing at Philip Morris as a seasoned executive in 1990. He was named CEO of the domestic cigarette company in 1997 just as the Tobacco Wars were getting under way. Like his boss Geoffrey Bible, Szymanczyk had the fight of a bull elk in him and was imbued with more than a fair share of confidence. He was always the first to speak up in a meeting, leading some people to call it for what it was: arrogance. But his business acumen largely forgave any conceit. Szymanczyk took Willard under his wing. The up-­and-­coming executive so revered his mentor that people at the company jokingly took to calling him "Little Mike." But Willard, who retained the Judge Reinhold aura, never quite matched his boss's je ne sais quoi. While Willard also was a member of the tall club, he was still at least a couple of inches shorter than Szymanczyk. And while Willard also was always the first to speak in a meeting, he often came across as a brash know-­it-­all rather than an enlightened manager. But he had promise, and ambition; that much was evident early on. Willard's rise coincided with Philip Morris's compulsory reawakening that Parrish had engineered and Szymanczyk drove home. In October 1999 the company launched its first website, which as vice president of information services Willard had helped oversee. On it, Philip Morris for the first time publicly acknowledged that cigarettes not only caused lung cancer but were also addictive, stunning public-­health advocates who'd been screaming that exact truth into the void for years. "Integrity, trust, passion, creativity, quality and sharing," the website said. "They're the values that guide us as a business and as individuals." Excerpted from The Devil's Playbook: Big Tobacco, Juul, and the Addiction of a New Generation by Lauren Etter All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.