As New Jersey lawmakers considered restrictions on vaping products, a leading e-cigarette maker donated to political organizations with close ties to both state Senate President Steve Sweeney and Gov. Phil Murphy.
The donations from Juul Labs came even after Sweeney called for a ban on all vaping products and then pushed a bill that would severely restrict their sales in New Jersey.
According to filings with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, Juul’s $7,500 donation to General Majority, a Sweeney-tied super PAC, was dated Jan. 24 — less than two weeks after the Senate and Assembly passed a Sweeney-backed bill, NJ A5922 (18R), that could have banned the company’s products from store shelves, and three days after Murphy vetoed it.
And filings with the Internal Revenue service show Juul donated $50,350 to the Democratic Governors Association in August and September 2019 when Murphy was the organization’s vice chair and a few months before he became chairman. DGA spokesperson David Turner said Murphy did not solicit the contribution. Juul gave almost the same amount to the Republican Governors Association a few months later.
In September, as a mysterious respiratory illness tied to vaping was making headlines, Sweeney was calling for a ban on all vape products. In October, Murphy formed a task force to address the vaping issue. The illness was later attributed mainly to black market THC vaping products.
Juul said it committed to the donation to General Majority after receiving an invitation to a fundraising event for the super PAC. The donation appears to be the only state-level contribution Juul made in New Jersey.
The date on donation checks does not always accurately reflect when the money was committed.
“At JUUL Labs, our philosophy is to support people and organizations to combat underage use and convert adult smokers from combustible cigarettes, including state political committees on a bipartisan basis around the country,” company spokesperson Austin Finan said in a statement. “We remain focused on resetting the vapor category in the U.S. and earning the trust of society by working cooperatively with lawmakers, attorneys general, regulators, public health officials, and other stakeholders to achieve those goals.”
Juul — like Turner and Murphy adviser Brendan Gill — said the governor did not solicit the donation to the DGA.
General Majority has no official ties to Sweeney, but spent millions of dollars in 2017 — bankrolled in part with loans from Sweeney’s allies — to reelect him in what turned out to be the most expensive state legislative race in New Jersey history. The super PAC‘s treasurer is former Sweeney adviser Sean Kennedy, and the group is widely considered to be unofficially run by South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross.
In September, Sweeney proposed a phased-in ban on the sale of both tobacco- and cannabis-based vape products in New Jersey. He backed off that after Murphy formed the vaping task force, but was a prime sponsor of a bill that would set a 2-percent cap on the amount of nicotine in vape cartridges and liquids. That would effectively ban many of the most popular products from vape manufacturers, including Juul.
Murphy signed another bill in January, NJ S3265 (18R), that banned flavored vaping products. That bill initially included a provision to restrict sales to vape retailers. That provision was struck during the legislative process amid pushback from gas stations, convenience and grocery stores. Juul products are often sold in gas stations and convenience stores.
After Murphy vetoed the 2-percent nicotine cap bill at the end of the last legislative session, another sponsor of the measure, state Senate Health Chairman Joseph Vitale, vowed to reintroduce it.
Sweeney’s office declined to comment, but Vitale (D-Middlesex) said he will get to it once the immediate urgency of dealing with the coronavirus passes.
“I couldn’t care less what Juul thinks. Their actions are a big reason why we have so many addicted kids,” Vitale said.
In addition to its donation, Juul spent $186,000 on lobbying in New Jersey, disclosures show. It hired two firms, Capital Impact Group and MBI Gluckshaw, paying them $70,000 each and spending the rest on an in-house lobbyist.