How Ploom Is Disrupting Big Tobacco
James Monsees

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Why Should You Care

James Monsees is disrupting Big Tobacco in an even bigger way. While grappling with the negative stigma of smoking cigarettes but not wanting to quit, Monsees sought to make a change: Meet Ploom.

Ploom is an ingenious attempt to overthrow the irrational adherence to the “little white stick” model of the cigarette. In short, Ploom uses heat as opposed to burning to produce the tobacco flavor that you inhale. Rather than burning a liquid like an e-cigarette, this product uses real tobacco–Which is why he’s so adamant this is not a “quit-smoking” product.

In his interview, Monsees talks about the intimidation factor of facing Big Tobacco, the obsessive design process, and whether or not he’s getting in the way of man’s primal desire to “burn stuff.”


James Monsees was a founding fellow at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, in addition to being a part of Metaphase Design Group, K2 Sports and a wide variety of other projects. While working on his Masters’s thesis, James saw an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent the smoking paradigm and founded Ploom with Adam Bowen in 2007.

James holds an MFA in Product Design from Stanford University and a BA in Physics and Studio Art from Kenyon College.

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We have history in our family of someone who died of lung cancer from smoking.  My mother is a doctor, a really good one.

When I told my mom that I was going to be a tobacco executive, which she laughs at, she wasn’t exactly thrilled about that.


Lucky Strike Commercial: “For the taste that you like, light up a Lucky Strike, Wake Up, it’s Lucky time…”


My friend, Adam, and I were in a graduate program called Product Design…There was a comprehensive thesis we had to do our last year ….We spent a lot of time smoking cigarettes and worrying about what our thesis topic would be.  Well, one that really struck us was the conflict that we saw in each other when we would smoke cigarettes.


I think we saw in each other the need for a better kind of product. The stigma that’s associated with cigarettes, it has a lot of really wonderful things, and a lot of things that we don’t necessarily love. If you have the opportunity to use a new technological base to create a new kind of product, why would you mimic one that’s saddled with negatives?


CBS News footage: “It is the judgement of the committee that cigarette smoking contributes substantially to mortality from certain specific diseases and the overall death rate.”


there was a moment that we understood if we go in this direction it will be inevitable that we are going to be dealing with major tobacco companies.  That was frightening for us at first…how are we, just a couple of guys, going to deal with one of the largest corporations in the world? PArticulally one with entrenched interests, that hasnt’t seen a lot of innovation in a while. Yeah and I guess our fear was that look it would be advantageous for these companies to not have us around one way or the other, buy us out, put us out of business, wrap us up in court. Who knows?


We were at least about to find one who knew what it took to be innovative and how much they really needed it from the inside out.


We make two different products right now. We make Pax, and we make a product called Ploom. Those are two different products that use real tobacco and vaporization to heat tobacco at low temperature and release nicotine and flavor and that’s it. And then I can just [smokes].


Tobacco companies have experimented with vaporization technology since the 1950’s. The use of vaporization technology for tobacco company was aimed at creating a safer cigarette.  What we really realized is that is not a very good end game for consumers.


Camel Commercial: What cigarette do you smoke doctor? Yes, surveys show that more doctors smoke camels than any other cigarette. Smoke camels…


But certainly that is something that Adam and I at the time really cared about was understanding what kinds of technologies were addressable in the tobacco market that could create a really satisfying experience but be better for people’s health.


I think it is absolutely amazing what is happening in the tobacco field right now.  To see this kind of game changing shift and to see it happen so quickly away from these traditional products where there are known detriments to consumers and public health.  Just to see innovation happen at all.


CBS News Report: What is an E c-gigarette? E-cigarette, it’s an electronic cigarette, it’s liquid that has nicotine, flavoring and some other chemicals and it’s heated up with a battery into a vapor and you get the rush of hte nicotine.


We don’t make e-cigarettes, at least not right now. E-cigarettes are also vaporization devices, you’re just not doing that with real tobacco.


As CEO of Ploom or of a tobacco company in general, I can’t make public health claims about our products and I certainly wouldn’t want to insinuate them. Certainly that is something that Adam and I at the time really cared about was understanding what kinds of technologies were addressable that could create a really satisfying experience but be better for people’s health.


There’s actually no second hand smoke from e cigarettes or any of our products. You know the saying where there’s smoke there’s fire? Well there’s no fire, so there’s no smoke.


Interesting.  I like that question. Am I standing in the way of man and his primal desire to burn stuff?  Well first of all I am not standing in the way of that. We are not an activist company. If you don’t like what we are making better than cigarettes, then have a cigarette.  That is fine. If we can’t offer a better product experience than ones that have existed for hundreds of years, then we are not a very good innovation company.


Are we improving the industry rather than just perpetuating smoking?  Absolutely.vWe are very adamant about not testing products or selling products to non-smokers. There is really no need.  The smoking demographic is still a large enough market that it is what it is.


What we are really interested in is creating a new paradigm to something that we want to use and that people that we care about want to use.  Something that is kind of precious to them that creates the same kinds of social moments as traditional tobacco products without the rest of it.  That is what we are really interested in.


Made By

Cinematography: Danielle Calodney

Additional B-Roll by: Dyani Douze

Edited by: Danielle Calodney

Interviewed by: Laura Lehmann

Danielle Calodney

Danielle Calodney has been called the Chief Content Officer for 20to30, and that is the closest she has ever come to a proper title. She produces, shoots, and edits most 20to30 videos while also taking care of the site. She is grateful to live in a time when playing on the internet and making movies can be combined into one job.

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