Martha Coakley, who developed a reputation as a fierce consumer advocate as attorney general of Massachusetts, has taken a full-time job with Juul Labs, the e-cigarette giant that has been slammed by regulators and health advocates for allegedly promoting teen vaping.
Coakley, who was most recently a lawyer and lobbyist at Foley Hoag, will join Juul’s government affairs team in mid-April, according to the San Francisco-based company. She has been consulting for Juul for several months.
Her hiring comes amid growing concern that e-cigarettes, promoted as a way to help adults quit traditional cigarettes, have instead launched an epidemic of teens addicted to inhaling nicotine from the sleek electronic devices.
Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, noted that Juul is hiring Coakley after her successor and onetime deputy, Maura Healey, launched an investigation last summer into the company’s alleged marketing and sales to minors.
The company is also preparing for a new regulatory regime in Washington following the announcement last month that Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and a harsh critic of Juul, was resigning.
“Juul is building an army of lawyers and influencers to prevent meaningful regulation across the country,” Myers said. “It’s not a coincidence that they hired a former attorney general from Massachusetts when the current attorney general has done so much to expose their targeting of young people.”
Juul, the largest US e-cigarette maker, in December sold a 35 percent stake to Altria, the big tobacco company whose brands include Marlboro and Benson & Hedges. The nearly $13 billion investment, which valued Juul at $38 billion, was seen as a move by Altria to protect itself from declining cigarette sales.
As attorney general from 2007 to 2015, Coakley was known for taking corporations to court, and was among 40 attorneys general who in 2013 urged the FDA to ban sales of electronic cigarettes to minors and to clamp down on youth-oriented advertising of vaping products.
“People, especially kids, are being led to believe that e-cigarettes are a safe alternative, but they are highly addictive and can deliver strong doses of nicotine,” Coakley told CBS News at the time.
In a statement Tuesday, Coakley said still she hopes to help eliminate e-cigarette use by minors.
“I believe in Juul Labs’ commitment to eliminate combustible cigarettes, the number one cause of preventable death in our country, and to combat youth usage,” she said. “Juul has an incredible opportunity to switch adult smokers and I look forward to working with stakeholders from the private and public sectors as we fulfill that mission and prevent youth from ever using vapor products like Juul.”
Marc Hymovitz, director of government relations in Massachusetts for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said the contention that Juul is committed to reducing teen use of e-cigarettes “sounds like the double speak we heard from big tobacco decades ago.”
“If not for Juul, we probably wouldn’t have the epidemic we have amongst kids, where we have a whole new generation that is addicted to nicotine,” said Hymovitz, adding that Juul has marketed fruit-flavored products, which appeal to children.
“Most of the kids wouldn’t have started if it were not for their products,” he said.
A Democrat, Coakley was considered a rising star in Massachusetts politics before she lost a 2010 Senate election to Republican Scott Brown and the 2014 governor’s race to Republican Charlie Baker.
After joining Foley Hoag in 2015, she lobbied on behalf of a raft of heavily regulated corporate clients, including the American Chemistry Council and DraftKings. Still, news of Coakley’s hiring by Juul, which was first reported by Politico, chagrined some of her former supporters.
“E-cigarettes are addictive poison marketed to and targeted at kids,” Benjamin Downing, a former Democratic state senator, wrote on Twitter. “I spent summer and fall of 2014 criss crossing the state for Martha Coakley, among others. To say this is profoundly disappointing is an understatement.”
Steve Kerrigan, Coakley’s running mate in the 2014 governor’s race, said he was “surprised, to say the least” that she is working for Juul, and likened her task to an attorney who represents a criminal defendant.
“The product that Juul peddles is dangerous and the way they market to young people is awful,” Kerrigan said. “But again, they deserve the best possible representation they can get, and they have it in Martha.”
Healey, who worked under Coakley as chief of her civil rights division, said Juul’s decision to hire her former boss would not influence her investigation of the company’s marketing and sales practices.
“Juuling and vaping in schools has reached epidemic proportions, and our office will continue to investigate this company’s role in creating this health crisis,” Jillian Fennimore, a Healey spokeswoman, said. “This announcement has no impact on our efforts to keep young people healthy and safe in Massachusetts.”
Healey spoke Tuesday at Newton South High School about the “growing youth health epidemic” of vaping.
The surgeon general has also labeled e-cigarette use among youth an “epidemic” and warned that nicotine exposure can cause addiction and harm the developing adolescent brain.
In Massachusetts, nearly half of high school students have tried e-cigarettes at least once, and nearly one-quarter reported in surveys that they had used them in the past 30 days, the Globe reported last year.
Dr. Michael B. Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University, said Coakley’s knowledge of the legal and regulatory landscape could help Juul reduce teen usage.
“I don’t think the company is necessarily trying to fend off regulations,” he said. “I think they are trying to figure out a way to preserve their adult market while trying to rid themselves of the youth market, if they can. I think they recognize, if they’re going to stay in business, they have to do that.”
Christina Prignano of the Globe staff contributed to this report.