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Chesto Means Business

Juul’s local lobbying effort goes up in smoke

Juul products displayed at a smoke shop. Juul spent $72,000 on lobbying salaries in Massachusetts this year through June, up from less than $1,000 in 2018.
Juul products displayed at a smoke shop. Juul spent $72,000 on lobbying salaries in Massachusetts this year through June, up from less than $1,000 in 2018. Seth Wenig/Associated Press/File 2018/Associated Press

So that big lobbying push on Beacon Hill hasn’t worked out so well for Juul Labs — or for Martha Coakley.

Governor Charlie Baker blindsided the vaping industry Tuesday when he declared e-cigarettes a public health emergency and blocked their sale for four months. Other states have imposed limits on flavored e-cigs. But Massachusetts became the first and only state so far with a blanket ban.

Then on Wednesday, House Speaker Bob DeLeo vowed to push legislation that would address vaping and tobacco use among children; the same day, the Legislature’s public health committee advanced a ban on flavored e-cigs.


Meanwhile, at Juul, a big shakeup: Cofounder Kevin Burns was replaced as chief executive by a top executive from Juul investor Altria Group, the big tobacco company. Juul, the country’s dominant e-cig maker, also suspended all advertising in the United States and agreed to refrain from lobbying the Trump administration during its discussions about a pending federal crackdown on flavored e-cigs.

The changes at the San Francisco-based startup came less than 24 hours after Baker’s big announcement. But Juul spokesman Austin Finan said the two were not connected. The bigger potential threat looms on the federal level, after all: Flavored products make up the bulk of Juul’s sales.

Still, it’s hard not to see the actions by Baker and DeLeo as anything less than major setbacks for Juul, and its lobbying team here. Juul started ramping up its efforts to boost its local lobbying presence last winter. (Among those who considered the opportunity: Uber public affairs executive Kelley Gossett, who opted to join Airbnb's ranks instead.)

In Massachusetts, Juul ended up hiring Beacon Hill lobbyists Steve Roche and Marty Walz, the former state rep, to work the halls of power. The MetroWest Daily News reported in May that Roche decided to make Juul his full-time gig. The company spent $72,000 on lobbying salaries in the state in 2019, through June, up from less than $1,000 (for Walz) in 2018, according to records filed with the Secretary of State’s office.


Then there’s Coakley. The former Massachusetts attorney general left the law firm of Foley Hoag to join Juul’s government affairs team in the spring. Coakley is not registered to lobby on behalf of Juul in Massachusetts; her job entails providing advice to the team on dealing with public officials, including other attorneys general.

Coakley’s Juul job raised more than a few eyebrows around town. You might recall that Coakley had joined a multistate effort in 2013 to urge the Food and Drug Administration to crack down on e-cigarettes, particularly out of concern for their impact on kids. (Coakley called them “highly addictive” at the time.) Her successor in the AG’s office, Maura Healey, began investigating Juul in 2018 over the issue of sales to minors, and castigated the company on Twitter just after its hiring of Coakley became public.

Coakley said at the time that she believed in Juul’s commitment to eliminate traditional cigarettes, the “number one cause of preventable death” in the United States, and to combat teen usage.

Finan, the Juul spokesman, said on Thursday that Juul would not be able to make Coakley available for an interview.

But Juul is fired up about Baker’s ban. Finan said banning e-cigarettes will foster a black market of products made with unknown ingredients, and will drive former adult smokers back to traditional cigarettes. Finan also said Juul remains committed to keeping its products out of the hands of underage people.


Maybe not committed enough, at least not from Baker’s perspective. The governor told reporters on Thursday that he weighed the economic impact before implementing the blanket ban. But the rising number of otherwise healthy people who have suffered from debilitating injuries to their lungs prompted him to act. As of Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it has observed 805 confirmed and probable cases of vaping-related illnesses, and the death toll nationwide had risen to 12.

To some extent, parallels can be seen with other California-based disrupters that deploy armies of lobbyists in state capitals across the country. The typical goal: to get state regulatory schemes in place that legitimize these new business models and head off critics and the more onerous restrictions they would want imposed.

Here in Boston, that strategy has worked effectively so far for the likes of Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb.

Whether Juul can pull it off here remains to be seen. But the company is off to a rough start.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.