Super Cities №141 — Case study: The Ethics of Innovation

Brendan Hart

One Big Thing

Juul has 75% of the e-cigarette market

Year-over-year use among high schoolers has risen by at least 80 percent

Hart’s Comment

Juul’s mission is “to improve the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers” by helping them “move to reduced risk products.”

In plain language, Juul products deliver all the nicotine but vapor instead of smoke.

Although the scientific benefits are unclear, reasonable people could conclude that, for current smokers, nicotine + vapor is better than nicotine + smoke.

But let’s dig into the business case.

Juul sells vaping products. Its estimated market size, right now, is one billion people.

As a business, would Juul benefit from fewer users / smaller markets, the same number of users / static markets, or more users / growing markets? Would sophisticated investors pour $1.2 billion into a company in a static or shrinking market?

Of course not.

Equity investments — in vaping products or ride-sharing companies — are future-looking. They require expanding markets, more users, and better margins.

So like the Marlboro Man, four who died from smoking-related diseases, this campaign isn’t about current smokers. It is about converting non-smokers to smokers. To build a successful vaping company, Juul must increase the overall numbers of users, globally, and that requires creating loops of nicotine addiction.

Juul’s backers will say that, if not them, some company will service this market. Juul’s critics will be appalled by the company’s core focus, especially among young people.

But one thing is for sure: as innovation increases, so do ethical questions about technology’s power over people and the conscious decisions individuals make along that spectrum.

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