Nation & World

As teen vaping soured, Juul courted state officials

E-cig maker forged an unusual tie to Iowa AG Tom Miller

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller stands Dec. 30, 2019, next to a painting depicting when he argued a case before the U.S
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller stands Dec. 30, 2019, next to a painting depicting when he argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. The painting is hung in his office in the Hoover State Office Building in Des Moines. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

WASHINGTON — Juul Labs, the nation’s largest electronic cigarette company, donated tens of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of state attorneys general in an effort to build relationships with these powerful officials and potentially head off legal challenges over how it promoted and sold its vaping products.

While the company’s unusual relationship with Iowa’s Tom Miller, the longest serving state attorney general in U.S. history, has been reported, records obtained by the Associated Press reveal Miller’s role went beyond what had been publicly known.

Besides praising Juul for efforts to address underage vaping. Miller served as a behind-the-scenes adviser for the company, helping it respond to media requests and inquiries from government officials.

Miller, however, did not receive campaign contributions from Juul.

The company’s approach to reaching out to the elected officials hasn’t stopped the officials from taking action. Thirty-nine states announced late last month hey will investigate whether Juul’s early viral marketing efforts illegally targeted teens and made misleading claims about the nicotine levels in its devices.

Health officials have declared underage vaping an epidemic, largely driven by the discrete, high-nicotine, fruity flavored pods that Juul sold until late last year.

The FDA and Congress are probing whether Juul’s early promotions deliberately appealed to minors, including the use of online influencers and product giveaways.

Yet Juul may face an even bigger threat from the nation’s state attorneys general, who previously used their power to force changes in the way Big Tobacco companies do business.

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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 with various government officials. The company says its outreach to attorneys general was aimed at collaborating with them on key issues, including combating underage use.

The documents obtained by the AP provide new details about former state attorneys general who were hired by the company, including Massachusetts’ Martha Coakley, who became a key messenger as Juul made the case it was working to keep its products away from minors while at the same time pitching its technology as an anti-cigarette smoking tool for adults.

Juul’s outreach included thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to individual state attorneys general, five of whom later met with the company’s representatives, according to the records. The company also donated $50,000 each to the Republican and Democratic fundraising committees that support the election of attorneys general candidates. Those donations won Juul corporate membership in both groups, a status that came with invitations to retreats and conferences attended by attorneys general and their staff. These events provide opportunities for companies to lobby officials.

Under legal and political pressure, San Francisco-based Juul has made a number of concessions in recent months, including halting U.S. advertising and pulling flavors except menthol and tobacco.

Before Juul began donating money to campaign coffers, the company forged an unlikely partnership with Miller, the Iowa attorney general with 37 years in office.

A Democrat, Miller frequently cites his work on the landmark 1998 tobacco settlement. But his office hasn’t joined the investigation of Juul.

Emails obtained by the AP show that Juul sought Miller’s counsel on how to respond to inquiries from government officials and media outlets. And even as more teens were vaping, Miller urged the public not to “overreact.”

Former state law officials say there is little precedent for such a close partnership between a sitting attorney general and a business.

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Miller told the AP he became involved with Juul to try to help stop underage use of the company’s products.

By spring 2018, Juul and Miller were in regular contact, emails show. In April his office issued a news release titled, “Juul offers opportunity to reduce smoking rates,” highlighting the company’s potential to shift smokers away from cigarettes.

In subsequent months, Juul would seek Miller’s guidance or encourage him to conduct interviews with journalists from the New York Times, NBC and CBS, amid nationwide reports of teens becoming addicted to Juul.

In April 2019, Miller penned a profile of Juul co-founders James Monsees and Adam Bowen for Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people.

Miller rejected any suggestions Juul benefited from its association with him. He stressed that his involvement with the company centered on vaping’s potential to reduce smoking.

“It wasn’t to speak well of Juul,” Miller said in an interview.

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, according to records.

Documents obtained from state officials show Juul representatives later secured meetings with several attorneys general or their senior staff.

The meetings gave Juul an opportunity to promote its vaping products over cigarettes

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