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I have a secret I have been hiding from my kids for 21 years.
In the fall of 1984, I was a 14-year-old beginning ninth grade at the prestigious Trinity School in Manhattan, which I had attended since kindergarten. It was a pressure cooker. As every parent of a high school student at a rigorous private school would say, “Now is the time to buckle down and work hard in order to get into a good college.” (I.e., the rest of your life is fucked if you do not work hard and aren’t serious.)
It was here on West 91st Street at Trinity that I would begin the worst relationship of my life which took me seven years to break.
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I had been exposed to smoking for most of my life. Although the smoking rate in the U.S. was slowly declining from an astounding 40% of all adults, my father still smoked two cigars a day proclaiming they were not as bad for you as cigarettes. My grandmother smoked two packs of unfiltered cigarettes for most of her life, even though she fought numerous and recurring respiratory conditions like emphysema and chronic bronchitis until her death. And even my septuagenarian babysitter smoked Salem’s — and hid that fact from my parents — sneaking puffs when I was home alone with her. In fact, some of my early middle school memories are of me stealing her cigarettes from her purse and flushing them down the toilet because I thought they were so disgusting.
Back then, movie theaters, restaurants, and even airplanes allowed smoking. Fortunately, my father stopped smoking in the 1990s after a battle with cancer, and we have just celebrated his 90th birthday. However, I must admit, I still find something nostalgic about the smell of a “good cigar” which reminds me of the constant aroma of my childhood apartment on a weekend afternoon while my dad would be smoking and watching a game.
Just across West 91st street from the front door of school was a magical place called “Under the Stairs.” It was here where students could simply cross the street in between classes and descend a small flight of stairs to an alley and begin a romance and addiction with a pack of Reds. It was glamorous and sinister at the same time, and everyone did it. Smoking was uncomfortable at first, but then it became hard to go without. I was hooked, and so was about 50 percent of my class. By the end of high school, I found myself smoking upwards of a pack a day and could not stop. The spell of nicotine had a powerful hold on me.
Tobacco’s vice grip
I was addicted. I now had an albatross around my neck as I could no longer leave home without my vice and its accessories, like lighters and matches. I recall family trips where I would have to go to the bathroom on flights to sneak a cigarette in the back of a plane to satisfy my craving. I would smoke before and after school and on breaks. It was something I could not escape. Despite a minimum age to purchase which I clearly did not meet at age 14, there was no shortage of retailers who were happy to take my $1.50 for my date with the Marlboro Man. This was an Achilles Heel in the system.
This. Had. To. Stop.
By age 21, I knew I had to quit. I had now smoked for one-third of my entire life, and I knew if I did not stop now, I might never quit. I really can’t explain how I did it, but I somehow found the mental acuity and courage to stop. Cold turkey. It was one of the most painful things I ever had to do and am so proud that I was able to break my addiction.
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As a father of two, ages 21 and 18, I was so scared my kids might go down the rabbit hole which had captured me. As my kids were maturing, I spent a lot of time talking with them about nicotine. I didn’t try to scare them with thoughts of illness and death — I just focused on how shitty it is to have to be dependent on nicotine. The need to be constantly scratching an itch that would never go away is a smoker’s demon. I think it worked as my children don’t smoke and feel very fortunate that they do not need to suffer.
Confession of a JUUL investor
I am a gut investor and always trust my gut for large decisions. There is no other way. It brought me to first invest in JUUL prior to its launch in 2015, and I strongly believe that it is a public health benefit and should be available to all adult smokers looking for an off-ramp to combustible cigarettes.
I never used a JUUL, but I believe e-vapes are significantly less harmful to users than combustible cigarettes and will save tens of millions of lives. I will not replay the story of the ups and downs of JUUL and its tragic and unintended impact on youth in America, but I obviously believe that children — or anyone of any age — should not be exposed to nicotine.
Many non-smokers believed that vape companies maliciously introduced flavors to attract kids to their products. This was not the case and just as flavored vodka isn’t really targeted at youth. I can tell you as a former smoker, it would have been easier to transition off tobacco onto a product that had a better taste, like Mango. I believe the efficacy of quitting tobacco would be higher with flavors, but I empathize with the argument of parents who believe these flavors attracted their kids to these off-limits products. While JUUL became a runaway success, it was not a company of bad actors who wanted to hook a generation of kids on nicotine. Like me, the founders were simply smokers who wanted to innovate and create a better, less harmful off-ramp from cigarettes to which they too were addicted. It is unfortunate what happened but has been course corrected. With the advent of Tobacco 21 and better retailer compliance, we have seen a reversal in the youth smoking trend, and I hope it goes to zero with stronger enforcement.
The road ahead for addicts
While you may hear of certain health benefits of nicotine like its ability to enhance focus and alertness and that it is not carcinogenic, it is one of the most addictive substances found on our planet. It is that sole fact that makes it so scary. After speaking with addiction specialists and having been a former addict myself, I believe it is harder to quit nicotine than other substances, including heroin, alcohol, cocaine, or marijuana. The current solutions available on the market today to help smokers quit are not effective. While two-thirds of American smokers want to quit, and over 50% will try to quit this year fewer than one in ten adult cigarette smokers succeed in quitting. Less than one-third of adult cigarette smokers use cessation counseling or medications approved for cessation by the FDA when trying to quit smoking. Why? Because smokers have tried every available option and their experience and outcome is the same regardless of the therapy, simply having to feel the crushing burden of failure. The fact that there has been no innovation in the space of smoking cessation therapies in over a decade is simply a failure.
Trusting my gut when in JUUL worked and is perhaps a reason why I first invested in a sketch-on-a-napkin idea presented to me by a young entrepreneur in 2018 who had a vision for a new smoking cessation technology called Qnovia.
They believe they have created the world’s first therapeutic prescription drug delivery platform that neither heats nor burns and, hence, does not release any harmful constituents to the users’ lungs. This is revolutionary, and I am hopeful that Qnovia’s breakthrough scientific platform technology can improve the health and lives of billions of consumers and patients around the world in a $1 trillion global addressable market and provide a strong off-ramp to smoking.
I am excited to have been the very first investor in Qnovia and would even consider myself a co-founder and serve on the board of directors. We have attracted some of the best business leaders and scientific minds in this space, including Brian Quigley as CEO and Dr. Jasjit S. Ahluwalia’s “Jas” as Chairman of our Scientific Advisory board. Brian was the former CEO of Altria’s Smokeless and Innovative Products Divisions, where he managed a $2 billion business focused on harm reduction products and has a deep background in FDA regulatory environments. Jas is one of the world’s foremost experts in academic research and public health focused on studying tobacco use, nicotine addiction, and smoking cessation. He is a physician and public health scientist at Brown University where he is a Professor, Associate Director of the Legoretta Cancer Center, and Deputy Director of the $13 million Center for Addiction and Disease Risk Exacerbation, a NIH-funded Center of Biomedical Research Excellence. Ahluwalia’s work has generated over 350 publications in leading scientific journals, and he has received over $100 million in research funding as a principal and co-investigator.
Investing with intention
I now have invested more of my net worth in Qnovia vs. the 275 other companies in which I am invested. We have now raised $30 million in funding, and it feels amazing to have some of the best minds and thought leaders involved in our journey and gives me encouragement that we have a shot. We are just at the beginning of our journey to seek FDA approval to sell a Nicotine Replacement Therapy solution, so we are still a long time away from being able to help smokers. My personal goal would be to see a day when we have succeeded in ridding the world of its one billion smokers and creating a better and safer future, and we have no one left to help. This is a lofty goal, but I am confident that it can be achieved.