There are endless tales of personal redemption, to be sure. But how many of those might actually lead to saving millions of other lives, as well?
That’s the story of Douglas Teitelbaum, a successful serial entrepreneur, known for buying up companies and turning them around. His most notable achievement was NextWave Telecom, when, before even his 40th birthday in 2004, his investing acumen netted billions – and got him featured in the New York Times.
But life wasn’t all good. He had worked, smoked and stressed himself into an admittedly dangerous health situation at a relatively early age – and was suffering from what he unhesitatingly calls “morbid obesity.” Realizing that all efforts at dieting would ultimately fail, he went for bariatric surgery, which changed his life.
The experience would arguably set him up for another radical life change almost a decade later.
Still nursing a two-packs-a-day habit, he lit a cigarette over drinks in a hotel room in late 2012 with his friend – Napster founder and first Facebook President – Sean Parker, who had already been interested in investing in the e-cigarette business.
“In the fall of 2012,” says Teitelbaum, “Sean had heroically devoted himself to eradicating cancer. He felt this was an obvious move, but felt strongly that no one was attacking the product development side of the e-cigarette industry intelligently and aggressively. He wanted us to create vapor products with appropriate nicotine delivery efficacy, with the speed that you get from a cigarette, and that also paid attention to the form factor – the look and feel of the product. And he felt if one did that, you could virtually erase the disease of smoking. “
So Teitelbaum did what he calls a “deep dive” into the industry, attempting to understand all the pitfalls and controversies swirling around it while also studying the science. During that time, a company called NJOY was garnering a good deal of attention; their NJOY King was released into the market with the genuinely catchy slogan Real Look, Real Feel, Real Taste. Teitelbaum tried it, and was able to make the switch away from regular cigarettes remarkably quickly.
“So I made a minority, non-control investment in the company,” he explains. “But some mistakes were made that it was unable to overcome, and it eventually went into bankruptcy.”
Still determined to stand by the obvious potential to get smokers off regular cigarettes, he bought the company out of bankruptcy. Only to then find a regulatory nightmare staring them in the face – fueled by agendas that were decidedly at cross-purposes.
He recalls, “Sometime after I switched from smoking to e-cigarettes, I realized that there were people who were not being honest about the science; and I came to realize that it’s in the best interest of the health care industry to continue to treat the illnesses associated with smoking. It’s the only reason I can think of why they wouldn’t get behind products, like NJOY’s, with such clear harm reduction potential.”
Seeing far beyond any commonplace profit motives, Teitelbaum understood that millions of Americans’ health – and even their lives – were at stake in the bureaucratic standoff between the e-cigarette movement and the big health/pharma money machine. Especially as NJOY Daily had seemingly solved the matter of creating products sufficiently replicating the experience of actually smoking – forcing opponents to dig in with even greater intensity.
Teitelbaum recalls, “It took me a period of time to fully appreciate the propaganda engine that was misinforming the public. Because of my unwillingness to allow the ill-intended, manipulated or uninformed to prevent me from switching smokers to vapor, I’ve found myself on a crusade.”
It hasn’t been an easy one, despite the remarkable amount evidence on his side. Indeed, in 2015 Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller issued an unambiguous statement:
“There has been an effort to say that combustible cigarettes and e-cigarettes are equally harmful, and that they should be strongly regulated in the same way. This view is incorrect…the harm of the combustible cigarette is dramatically greater.”
Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona (an emphatic voice on the dangers of second hand smoke) had even joined the NJOY board in 2013 – recognizing that while anti-smoking efforts had significantly reduced user numbers, there was a point where the numbers just wouldn’t budge any further. There were those who simply could not quit – but Teitelbaum was sure that he and NJOY could get them to switch…to a product that was ultimately remarkably safe.
And to be sure, Public Health England’s 2016 study concluded that e-cigarettes are around 95% safer than the real thing; and the science behind vaping is hard to refute. Teitelbaum is convinced, however, that this is a much different, and far more serious matter than simply selling a better product.
“NJOY’s core mission under my leadership,” he insists, “is our ability to help people switch to vapor. I understand the smoker really well, and I love helping people make the switch. But we have to put them on a path to success – they have to go through what I call the switching process.”
There have been no shortage of success stories – and they are enthusiastically willing to talk about it.
Former cigarette smoker Jim Levin enthuses, “Had Doug not been as persistent as he was in switching me, I certainly would still be smoking my American Spirits today. But that was over four months ago, and I have not had a single drag of a cigarette since.”
Another, David Grzelak, is even more personal about it: “Doug has such great empathy for what’s it like to be a smoker and what’s it like to try to quit and fail. He encouraged me to go at my own pace, and made it clear the satisfaction of NJOY and vaping products slowly builds over time, and at a different pace for everyone. He made me feel like there wasn’t a succeed-or-fail dichotomy with switching”.
It’s stories like these that lead one to believe that this fight will eventually be decisively won – even if it ultimately comes down to making it about the issue of the staggering health care costs associated with cigarette smoking. Something that, of course, significantly affects every American taxpayer.
“It’s so clear to me where we’re going,” Teitelbaum says thoughtfully. “And every day more research comes out that shows how right we are.”
He’s even creating an NJOY “Switch Kit,” which he will enthusiastically offer to every smoker that he meets – convinced that they will become another one of the likely millions of lives that will be redeemed by his cause.
“The reason I’m going to win is simple,” he asserts. “There is this group of people called smokers who deserve empathy and whose lives will change dramatically through switching. They have to believe it’s worth doing, and then they have to be shown that right path. And I am focused on both of those.”