Juul Labs sought to court AGs as teen vaping surged

FILE - In this April 16, 2019, file photo, a woman exhales a puff of vapor from a Juul pen in Vancouver, Wash. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer, File)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was a blunt warning about the dangers of youth vaping: Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr announced late last month that his state had joined 38 others to investigate whether Juul Labs, the nation’s largest electronic cigarette company, promoted and sold its nicotine-heavy products to teens.

It was a moment Juul had worked to avoid.

Ten months earlier, a team of Juul representatives met with Carr and his senior staff. They delivered a 17-page presentation laden with information about the public health potential of Juul’s combustion-free vaping devices for adult smokers and the company’s “commitment to ending youth use,” a pledge that included more rigorous retail and online sales controls.

Juul had access, but it did not pay off. In that way, the company’s experience in Georgia was typical. Again and again, the company met with Carr and other state attorneys general, in many cases giving money to their campaign funds. But again and again, it was stymied in its efforts to forestall legal action.

The session in Carr’s Atlanta offices and meetings with other state AGs haven’t been previously reported. The Associated Press uncovered the influence campaign by reviewing Juul’s political donations and obtaining internal emails, meeting minutes and company records through open records requests to more than a dozen state attorneys general offices.

The documents shed new light on details about the advocacy roles that the former attorneys general of Massachusetts and Rhode Island have played for the company, including lobbying state officials. They would become important messengers as Juul stressed its efforts to keep its products away from minors while simultaneously pitching its technology as an anti-smoking tool.

Juul’s political action committee made thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to individual state attorneys general, several of whom, like Carr, later met with the company’s representatives, according to the records. Carr’s spokeswoman said a $3,000 contribution Juul’s PAC made to Carr’s 2018 reelection campaign wasn’t a factor in his decision to accept the meeting.

The company also donated $50,000 each to the Republican and Democratic fundraising committees that support the election of attorney general candidates. Those donations won Juul corporate membership in both groups, a status that came with invitations to semiannual retreats and conferences attended by attorneys general and their staff. The face time with state officials hasn’t prevented scrutiny, however. So far nine states have filed lawsuits against Juul and more may come in the wake of the 39-state investigation, which also is examining whether the company made misleading claims about the nicotine content in its devices.

In an emailed response to written questions, a Juul spokesman declined to say how many state attorneys general company representatives have met with. Juul, the spokesman said, is working to earn “the trust of society by working cooperatively with attorneys general, regulators” and other officials to combat teen vaping and to steer adult smokers away from cigarettes.

Teen use of e-cigarettes has skyrocketed more than 70% since Juul’s launch in 2015, leading the Food and Drug Administration to declare an epidemic of underage vaping among teenagers. Health experts fear this unprecedented increase has hooked a generation of young people on nicotine. More than 1 in 4 high schoolers now reports vaping and Juul is the top brand, preferred by 60% of students, according to the latest government data.

“Juul really created this crisis,” said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner. “Juul created the pool of nicotine-addicted teens and I think they popularized the idea of vaping among kids.”

During Gottleib’s tenure, the FDA raided Juul’s San Francisco headquarters, seizing more than 1,000 documents related to the company’s early sales and marketing efforts, including online promotions featuring young models and celebrities on social media sites like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Juul’s meteoric rise has been followed by a hasty retreat amid a nationwide backlash over vaping. Although Juul remains the dominant player in the multibillion-dollar e-cigarette market, the company has made several concessions such as pulling its mint, fruit and creme flavors from the market. The company currently sells only menthol and tobacco nicotine pods. Juul also has shuttered its social media presence and halted all U.S. advertising.

Yet Juul may face an even bigger threat from state attorneys general, most of whom are elected independently and have broad discretion to investigate and litigate. They’re especially formidable when they band together. Dozens of them did in the 1990s with litigation against tobacco companies that led to an historic $206 billion settlement and new marketing rules that continue to govern how the industry operates. More recently, nearly all states have sued opioid drugmakers and distributors for their alleged role in the addiction epidemic tied to prescription painkillers.

In mid-2018, as states began to eye Juul more critically, the company gave $50,000 each to the Democratic Attorneys General Association and its GOP counterpart, the Republican Attorneys General Association, according to financial reports filed with the IRS. The organizations raise money and back candidates running for the office. Neither of the groups discloses how they disperse corporate donations to candidates.

Those contributions and others would be followed by meetings with at least five state attorneys general, documents obtained through open records requests show.

One of those meetings came in September 2018, when Juul representatives met with Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro to discuss how to stop young people from using the company’s products. Last month Shapiro announced that Pennsylvania would sue Juul for allegedly misleading the public about the addictiveness of its e-cigarettes.

In late October 2018, Juul’s political action committee donated more than $38,000 to incumbent state attorneys general and one first-time candidate for the office. By then, Juul was squarely in the crosshairs of FDA regulators, who were sounding the alarm on teen vaping after survey data showed e-cigarette use among high school students had jumped nearly 80% in the past year.

Juul enlisted two former state attorneys general, Patrick Lynch and Martha Coakley, as the company stepped up its outreach to current occupants of the office. Lynch was Rhode Island’s chief legal officer from 2003 to 2010 while Coakley was the attorney general of Massachusetts from 2007 to 2015.

When Juul executives agreed to allow Marlboro cigarette-maker Altria to buy a 35% stake in their company for nearly $13 billion, Lynch sent a letter on Juul’s behalf to state attorneys general explaining that his client would “remain fully independent and entirely focused” on its mission to help smokers, despite the investment from the nation’s biggest cigarette maker. Lynch’s office did not return repeated calls and emails seeking comment.

Juul hired Coakley to be its vice president of government affairs in April 2019. A month later she was among the Juul representatives that met with Chris Carr, the Georgia attorney general.

While in office, Coakley joined more than three dozen other attorneys general in writing a letter to the FDA that called for the “immediate regulatory oversight of e-cigarettes, an increasingly widespread, addictive product.”

She has a very different role now. Coakley helps to “educate state officials, regulators and organizations on Juul’s commitment to combating underage use and transitioning adult smokers from combustible cigarettes,” the company said.

Her replacement as Massachusetts attorney general, Maura Healey, has a very different opinion of Juul.

“We are going to make them pay for the public health crisis they caused in Massachusetts,” Healey said upon announcing her lawsuit against the company last month.