With state and federal governments looking to restrict vaping, the nation's largest e-cigarette maker pushed back with a multimillion-dollar advocacy campaign.
As President Trump, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and state governments crack down on vaping amid rising health concerns, hundreds of hospitalizations and six deaths, the nation's top e-cigarette manufacturer has responded by hiring enough lobbyists to fill a Boeing 727.
An APM Reports analysis of state and federal lobbyist filings has found that Juul Labs Inc. — the San Francisco-based company that controls a third of the vaping market — hired nearly all its lobbyists in the 10 months since the federal government expressed alarm about how the company has marketed its products to teens.
As recently as early 2018, Juul had just a handful of lobbyists working in Washington, D.C., and two states. It now has at least 166 people pushing its agenda on the federal level and in 48 state capitals and Washington, D.C., according to the analysis.
In the past year, Juul has had to defend itself from an onslaught of negative publicity and lawmakers at every level of government hungry to investigate its marketing strategies and restrict its products. That includes efforts ranging from raising the age limit to buy e-cigarettes, to outlawing popular flavored cartridges to banning e-cigarettes entirely.
Juul is spending heavily on PR efforts to protect its brand, doling out $4.5 million through July in San Francisco to pass an upcoming ballot initiative that would reverse the city's ban on the sale of e-cigarettes.
It's routine for businesses to hire lobbyists to represent their interests. And Juul contends that it's committed to keeping teens from using its products, including flavored e-cigarettes. But some anti-tobacco advocates say the company's lobbyists have successfully weakened legislation in several states aimed at preventing teen vaping and have exerted outsized influence on state and national policy.
"I've been doing this for 20 years, and I've never seen a lobbying effort like Juul is putting up now," said Rob Crane, a professor in the Department of Family Medicine at The Ohio State University and founder of the nonprofit Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation.
Crane said his organization has battled Juul and tobacco lobbyists in Ohio and other states to pass a measure that would raise the age to buy tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21. He said Ohio lawmakers raised the age requirement this year but, in a concession to tobacco interests, failed to include meaningful enforcement measures. He said four other states also passed versions of the so-called Tobacco 21 laws in the past year that included provisions favored by the tobacco industry, such as forbidding local governments from enacting tougher restrictions. "To have this many lobbyists, this fast, has been a real challenge for us," he said.
A spokesman for Juul declined interview requests for this story but defended the company's lobbying in an email.
"We have grown our team to engage with lawmakers, regulators, public health officials and advocates across the country to drive awareness that Juul exists to help adult smokers switch and is committed to keeping Juul products out of the hands of underage people," the spokesman wrote.
The company is also spending heavily on public relations efforts to protect its brand. It has doled out $4.5 million through July in San Francisco to pass a November ballot initiative that would reverse the city's ban on the sale of e-cigarettes, according to campaign records. The company has posted at least 12 job openings aimed at bolstering its public standing.
Warnings from the feds
Juul's domination of the e-cigarette market led Altria — which manufactures Marlboro cigarettes — to purchase a 35-percent stake in the company for $12.8 billion last December.
Despite receiving heavy criticism for contributing to a dramatic increase in teen vaping, Juul says it markets itself only to adult cigarette smokers looking for a healthier alternative.
The FDA and several state health departments initially agreed with that approach, leading to regulatory indifference over e-cigarettes. An APM Reports investigation last year showed only 13 states spending direct money on campaigns to discourage e-cigarette use among teens.
That changed last September when FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb warned of a youth vaping epidemic. E-cigarette use among teens more than doubled in the past two years, with 28 percent of high schoolers saying they use e-cigarettes in 2019, according to federal survey data.
Anti-tobacco advocates say Juul says one thing and does another, criticizing the company for supporting toothless legislation that either limits enforcement or prevents local governments from passing stricter measures.
The company has come under even greater fire recently. Last week, the FDA accused Juul of illegally marketing its product and moved to ban the sale of all flavored e-cigarettes regardless of age.
A Juul spokesman released a statement saying it strongly agreed with the need for aggressive action on flavored products and will "fully comply with the final FDA policy when effective."
Public health officials are also trying to determine what is causing an outbreak of vaping-related illnesses that has led to at least six deaths and multiple hospitalizations. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported on Wednesday that there have been 380 cases of lung illnesses associated with the use of e-cigarettes in 36 states. Many of the illnesses have been linked to using e-cigarettes with THC, the chemical compound in marijuana that is responsible for giving people a high sensation, but other illnesses have been linked to e-cigarettes containing only nicotine.
It isn't clear whether Juul's products contributed to the outbreak, but the illnesses among previously healthy teens have caused public alarm about the safety of the product.
An army of lobbyists
As regulators and legislators started raising concerns about the dangers of vaping, Juul was quietly bolstering its lobbying team.
In 2017, the company had just two contract lobbyists registered with the federal government. After federal regulators became more aggressive about controlling vaping, the company added 22 more federal lobbyists in 2018.
In the first half of 2019, Juul spent $2.9 million on lobbying the federal government, more than doubling its lobbying expenses from 2017 and 2018 combined, according to federal records.
Meanwhile, its political action committee reported spending $200,000 on candidates and committees affiliated with candidates representing both political parties, according to campaign finance data.
The company also dramatically increased its spending in states. Juul has 142 lobbyists registered in 48 states and Washington, D.C., according to the APM Reports analysis. That's more than seven times the number of lobbyists the company had registered before Gottlieb's 2018 warning about youth vaping.
The spike in teen vaping, along with parents' worries that their children could become a new generation of nicotine addicts, prompted state officials to act.
"It's more playing catch-up, I think, instead of getting out in front of it," said Frank Chaloupka, research professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health. "It took until the rates skyrocketed before states really started to pay much attention to it."
State and local governments across the country have recently taken steps to reduce teen vaping, including filing lawsuits, launching investigations, and instituting tax hikes or outright bans. Michigan and the city of Sacramento banned the sale of flavored e-cigarettes, and San Francisco banned the sale of the product entirely. Fourteen states now tax e-cigarettes, while only eight did in 2018. Most recently, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Sunday that he planned to take emergency action to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes.
Attorneys general in five states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois and North Carolina, as well as Washington, D.C., have launched investigations into Juul. The AGs are probing the company's popularity among minors and its marketing as a "smoking cessation device" that doesn't have FDA approval.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein is suing Juul and eight other e-cigarette companies. He alleges the companies target children, pointing to their candy-flavored products.
Juul announced last November that it would stop selling all but one flavored product in stores, part of an effort to discourage youth vaping. Customers can buy only menthol products in stores but can still order flavored products online.
Fighting teen vaping
The company has repeatedly said that it markets its product only to adults and is taking steps to prevent youth vaping. Those measures include shutting down its Facebook and Instagram accounts in the United States, and supporting state and federal efforts to increase the age requirement to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.
"For well over a year, we have publicly supported raising the minimum purchasing age for all tobacco and vapor products, including Juul, to 21 years," a company spokesman said.
Juul's lobbying on Tobacco 21 has had an impact. Of the 18 states and the District of Columbia with "Tobacco 21" laws, 12 of them were passed in the past seven months.
But anti-tobacco advocates say Juul has been saying one thing and doing another. They have criticized the company for supporting toothless legislation that either limits enforcement mechanisms or prevents local governments from passing stricter anti-tobacco measures.
Critics say that Texas, Virginia, Utah and Arkansas all recently passed weak Tobacco 21 laws. They say statutes in these states have limited penalties for retailers who sell to underage consumers and include provisions that forbid local governments from enacting tougher measures.
Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control and Research, said Juul is adopting the lobbying tactics long used by tobacco companies. He said cities and counties have successfully passed ordinances banning the product entirely, outlawing the sale of flavored vaping devices or raising the age requirement with tough enforcement penalties. Then, to limit those efforts, Juul and other tobacco companies have hired lobbyists to pass bills at the state level that "preempt" tougher local enforcement.
"The only way that the tobacco industry has managed to continue existing is through the exercise of political power," he said. "If you don't have a case, the next best thing to do is buy political protection."
Arkansas passed its Tobacco 21 legislation in April and included a preemption measure to limit local regulation of tobacco products.
Arkansas state Rep. Andy Davis, lead sponsor of the bill, said that adding the preemption provision helped ensure there were standard rules across the state. The Republican legislator said tobacco lobbyists supported the bill.
"This was not lobbied heavily by tobacco either way, for or against," Davis said. "They were not nearly as involved as I think the perception is."
A spokesman for Juul said the company didn't advocate for the preemption provision in Arkansas. He said the company would prefer "clean Tobacco 21" bills but understands state politics play a role in shaping legislation.
One lobbyist registered on behalf of Juul in Arkansas in 2019. The company reported spending $75,537 on advertising and another $1,392 on food, lodging or travel according to lobbyist registration records.
The lobbyists and firms hired to represent Juul across the country often have deep political connections. Some firms employ former governors, U.S. senators and legislative leaders on staff. Others represent major businesses including Anheuser Busch, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Coca-Cola and Koch Industries.
The company is also building a support network to help its influence campaign.
Juul posted job listings on its website recently that include a senior campaign manager "responsible for designing and executing public affairs campaigns to support regional legislative objectives" and a grassroots team aimed at converting "Juul consumers and community members into advocates for the brand" on key policy issues in cities across the country.
The company may need those resources, because tobacco prevention efforts are about to receive an infusion of money.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced this week that his nonprofit will spend $160 million nationwide with the goal of ending the youth vaping epidemic by banning the sale of flavored tobacco, and stopping Juul and other e-cigarette companies from marketing their products to children. The initiative will be led by The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, which has lobbied for tobacco prevention laws across the country.
It also isn't clear if Juul's lobbying efforts will have an impact since a growing number of parents have started to worry about e-cigarette use among children.
"There's just been this wave of public concern all over the country," Glantz said.