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 the unusual connection Juul forged with Iowa’s Tom Miller, the longest-serving state attorney general in U.S. history. The records show that Miller served as a behind-the-scenes adviser, helping the company respond to media requests and inquiries from government officials. Miller did not receive campaign contributions from Juul.
The documents also provide new details about the advocacy roles that the former attorneys general of Massachusetts and Rhode Island have played for the company, including lobbying state officials. All three 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. Katie Byrd, 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 attorneys 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. These events provide opportunities for companies to lobby state officials.
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.
The spokesman said Juul reached out to Miller and donated to other attorneys general to “listen and learn” from them on a range of issues, including cracking down on counterfeit vaping products.
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, a highly addictive drug that is harmful to the developing brain. More than 1 in 4 high schoolers now reports vaping and Juul is the top brand, preferred by 60 percent 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 in recent months, 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.
The FDA and a congressional oversight panel continue to investigate whether the company targeted young people with the flavors, design and advertising of its products.
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.
“It means they’re in a world of hurt,” James Tierney, a former attorney general of Maine who now teaches at Harvard Law School, said of the multistate investigation. “The states are not buying what Juul is selling, and they’re saying, ‘We need to go deeper.’”
The latest of the nine state lawsuits against Juul was filed last month by Massachusetts’ chief legal officer, Maura Healey. Citing company records, she alleges that Juul bought advertisements on seventeen.com, nickjr.com, the cartoonnetwork.com and other websites designed for teens and children.
Most of the state lawsuits similarly allege that Juul adopted the playbook of Big Tobacco by luring teens with colorful, youth-oriented ads, “launch parties” and product giveaways. But to date, Juul hasn’t faced the same type of coordinated, multi-state lawsuit previously used to target tobacco, pharmaceutical and financial companies.
A TOBACCO WARRIOR IN JUUL’S CORNER
Juul’s unlikely partnership with Miller, the Iowa attorney general, began in spring 2018 as federal and state health officials grappled with the surging popularity of teen vaping.
A Democrat with more than 37 years in office, Miller frequently mentions his leadership role in forging the 1998 settlement with the tobacco industry. He’s championed vaping’s potential to “save the lives of adult smokers.”
The company sought Miller’s counsel on how to respond to inquiries from government officials and media outlets. And even as more and more teens were vaping, he urged the public not to “overreact.” Portions of Juul’s interactions with Miller were previously reported by Politico and Vice News.
By April 2018, Miller’s staff was working to set up a call between the attorney general and Juul’s then-chief administrative officer, Ashley Gould.
“He wants a time scheduled with her and put on his calendar,” wrote Miller’s executive secretary, in an email to fellow staffers.
Two weeks later Miller’s office issued a press release titled “Juul offers opportunity to reduce smoking rates” highlighting the company’s potential to shift smokers away from cigarettes.
Days after that, Miller announced a more concrete relationship, saying he would advise Juul on how to keep its product away from young people.
In a press statement, Miller said underage vaping was a “cause for concern,” but had “not reached panic or epidemic stages.”
Miller’s new role involved organizing a group of experts to advise the company on underage use. Of the 13 experts Miller assembled for the group, more than half were former attorneys general, including ex-officials from Illinois and Arizona, both states that had recently requested documents from the company. Other members of the group included several researchers and one of Miller’s assistants, who would later leave his job to work as a vice president for Juul.
The advisory group would hold several conference calls with Juul executives. But one former state official was not sympathetic to Juul’s desire to keep its flavors readily available in stores.
“I would support banning the product if you can’t do a better job of keeping it out of the hands of children,” said former Arizona attorney general, Grant Woods, according to meeting minutes from an August call. The group held its last meeting in October 2018, according to Miller’s office.
Throughout the summer, Juul frequently reached out to Miller as negative press accounts of teenagers addicted to Juul’s flavored nicotine pods began to appear.
In one email to Miller’s secretary, a Juul executive requested time to discuss interview requests from “three top-tier reporters” who had contacted the company. “I’d love to involve AG Miller but wanted to get your thoughts before I sent the reporters your way,” wrote Juul spokeswoman Victoria Davis.
In the following weeks, Juul would seek Miller’s input or encourage him to field inquiries from The New York Times, CBS’ “60 Minutes” and NBC.
In April 2019, a positive profile of Juul co-founders James Monsees and Adam Bowen penned by Miller appeared in Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people.
In an interview with AP, Miller said he became involved with the company to help “bring them into compliance” by stopping underage sales of their products and to reduce the toll of smoking on adults.
“If you were going to deal with the question of kids and e-cigarettes, you had to deal with Juul,” Miller said.
Miller rejected any suggestions that Juul benefited from its association with him and said he wouldn’t hesitate to take legal action against the company if evidence shows wrongdoing.
Miller’s office hasn’t joined the multistate investigation of Juul.
Anthony Johnstone, a former assistant attorney general for Montana, said there is little precedent for such a close partnership.
“That depth of involvement by an AG with a single corporation at the center of a public health issue is uncharacteristic,” he said.
MONEY AND MEETINGS
In mid-2018, as other 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 both groups filed with the IRS. The organizations raise money and back candidates from their respective parties that are 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 attorney generals, documents obtained through open records requests show.
One of those meetings came in September 2018, when Juul representatives met with Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro and four of his staffers for nearly two hours to discuss how to to stop young people from using the company’s products.
Shapiro’s office had called for Juul to pull its fruit and dessert flavors from the market and reduce the high nicotine levels of its e-cigarettes. Yet the company declared these weren’t bugs, but features that adult smokers wanted, according to an eight-page memo written by a Juul executive that recounted the conversation.
A spokeswoman for Shapiro said members of his staff “meet with companies to discuss potential violations of the laws” and to see if they will correct them. 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, according to a review of campaign finance records. 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.
Not everyone wanted Juul’s money. Kwame Raoul, a Democrat elected in November 2018 to his first term as Illinois’ attorney general, rebuffed a $3,000 gift from Juul. Hanah Jubeh, a spokeswoman for Raoul’s campaign, said the contribution conflicted with his professional responsibilities and personal views. Raoul’s office announced in December it was suing Juul.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson announced last month that he’d joined the 39-state probe of Juul to examine whether the company “is following the law and not misleading people with false or misleading claims.” Previously, Wilson’s reelection campaign had accepted a $3,000 donation from Juul’s PAC and he’d met with company representatives in February 2019.
Wilson spokesman Robert Kittle said Juul’s contribution had no bearing on the decision to grant the meeting.
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.
Lynch runs a consulting firm that promotes its ability to help clients like Juul “build relationships and tailor communications” with state attorneys general around the country.
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.
Richard Lardner & Matthew Perron/Seattle Times