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Democrats say they don’t take Big Tobacco money. But JUUL had a sponsorship at convention

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Gov. Jerry Brown has signed California's most significant new tobacco legislation in decades.

On a night when 2020 presidential candidates were scoring big applause lines, one of the biggest lines at last weekend’s California Democratic Party state convention came not from Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, but party activist Hene Kelly.

“What committee should I go to to ask this party not to take any money from JUUL, who preys on children?” Kelly said to the roar of applause.

JUUL Labs, maker of a line of e-cigarette products in popular use among middle and high school students, had a prominent sponsor slot on the stage, where Democratic politicians like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Gavin Newsom and a bevy of presidential candidates and state officials spoke.

Asked their reason for sponsoring the event, JUUL Labs spokesman Ted Kwong said in a statement, “At JUUL Labs our philosophy is to support people and organizations to improve the lives of the world’s one billion smokers and to combat underage use so we keep JUUL products out of the hands of young people.”

The sponsorship got people talking, but perhaps not in the way JUUL envisioned.

Kelly wasn’t alone in her outrage. Dean Wallace, district director for Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, tweeted video of Kelly speaking and offered his own condemnation.

“It was shameful. And completely at-odds with our party’s values (and rules),” Wallace tweeted.

“Are you kidding me, (California Democratic Party)!? You took $$$ from JUUL and ran their ad at the convention? SO over this selling out,” tweeted Ruth Malone, a public health policy expert from the Bay Area.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, an outspoken critic of tobacco companies, said he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the sponsorship.

“I was baffled because it’s a long-standing policy of the Democratic Party not to take money from Big Tobacco,” Hill said.

JUUL is one-third owned by Altria, which owns tobacco giant Philip Morris USA.

““You can’t get any more tobacco money than JUUL,” Hill said. “The party of the people should not be contributing to the addiction of our young people.”

But the Democratic convention is just one example of JUUL’s political spending campaign; the vape product manufacturer has also spent more than $211,000 in lobbying at the Capitol in Sacramento, including more than $40,000 in the first quarter of 2019 alone. It has also bought advertising in capital media, including The Sacramento Bee.

According to paperwork filed with the California Secretary of State’s Office, JUUL “educated elected officials and staff on (the) company.”

“We have grown our California team to engage with lawmakers, regulators, public health officials and advocates to drive awareness of our mission to improve the lives of the world’s one billion smokers and to combat underage use so we keep JUUL out of the hands of young people,” Kwong said in a statement.

They also were advocating on the company’s behalf in opposition of Senate Bill 38, sponsored by Hill, a bill that would have banned the sale of flavored tobacco products in California. The bill was pulled at Hill’s request after “hostile amendments” were added to it that exempted hookahs and products patented before 2000.

Hill was reluctant to attribute the committee’s decision to add the hostile amendment to any particular lobbying.

“One never knows what influences or affects legislation in this building,” he said.

However, Hill was much clearer stating his belief that JUUL was using its deep pockets to its advantage.

“It’s obscene when you look at the amount of money that JUUL is spending in this Capitol, this building,” Hill said. “There’s no length nor amount of money they won’t spend to try to convince legislators and the public that they’re a good company and doing good work when the facts don’t support that.”

In the past, Hill has argued that vape flavors such as cotton candy or assorted fruits can be attractive to children. There’s evidence to bear this out: the Food and Drug Administration reports that more than 3.6 million middle and high school students reported vaping in 2018, double the number from the previous year.

Kwong argued that “flavors are a complex issue. We believe flavors play a critical role in switching adult smokers from cigarettes because flavors can help smokers disassociate from the taste of tobacco and the odor of cigarettes; we see the results in our own behavioral research.“

JUUL wasn’t the only SB 38 opponent to spend tens of thousands of dollars in lobbying, but it was the biggest spender. Tobacco product manufacturer Swedish Match North America spent more than $31,000, the Cigar Association of America spent $24,000 and the Vapor Technology Association spent $23,000.

By comparison, the American Lung Association — which withdrew sponsorship of SB 38 after the hostile amendment — spent a total of $4,684.81 on lobbying this year, with SB 38 being just one of dozens of bills that the nonprofit lobbied on.

““We’re absolutely outgunned when you look at the money, but the truth is, people see this as a problem,” said ALA spokeswoman Lindsey Freitas. “They recognize the role that JUUL has had (in spreading teen tobacco product use), and nobody wants our kids using these products.”

In a statement, Kwong said JUUL “(has) led, and will continue to lead, the category and support category-wide actions to reverse the trend in youth use, while preserving this unprecedented opportunity for adult smokers, and we will continue to work with California policymakers in a transparent and collaborative fashion to achieve that goal.”

While SB 38 is dead this legislative session, JUUL has lobbied on several other tobacco-related bills, some of which are actively working their way through the Legislature:

  • SB 39, which tightens regulations on the online sale of flavored tobacco products. That bill is now before the State Assembly, after unanimously passing through the Senate.

  • SB 424, which bans single-use vape products. That bill is now before the Assembly, after passing in the Senate, 25-9.

  • AB 131, which bans child-friendly vape ads and packaging. That bill hasn’t moved from committee since it was assigned last January.

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