The vaping industry’s unrivaled leader, Juul, is making a huge push to ingratiate itself with America’s communities of color, hoping that doing so will win it critical allies within the Democratic Party who can help it navigate a high-stakes legislative and regulatory minefield.
The company has hired lobbyists and consultants with deep ties to prominent black and Latino lawmakers, steered money to congressional black and Hispanic caucuses, and made overtures to leading civil rights groups. It has enlisted the services of a former head of the NAACP, a board member of the Congressional Black Caucus’s political arm, and the Obama White House’s top civil rights liaison. And it’s sought the support of National Action Network chief Rev. Al Sharpton.
Vaping advocates have long touted the products as a way to get minority populations who are disproportionately hooked on nicotine to abandon cigarettes. But Juul’s recent push to the African-American community in particular has been more overt, with company representatives even invoking a flashpoint moment in recent race relations to warn of the criminalization of nicotine products.
The effort is part of a lobbying push that even seasoned Washington operatives say is unprecedented in its scope and heft. Juul employs more than 80 lobbyists in Washington and various state capitals, according to a source familiar with its advocacy operation. And it hasn’t just reached out to African Americans; the company has also worked to promote its product and policy goals in the LGBT community and among mental health advocates, among other discrete groups. It has also staffed up with some top talent from the Trump administration. Last year it hired Josh Raffel, a former White House deputy communications director, as its vice president of corporate communications. Last month, Juul brought on Johnny DeStefano, who ran the White House personnel office, where he was considered one of the president’s more trusted advisers.
The staffing binge has been so prolific that other influence peddlers wonder if the company is gearing up for a political crisis. “I think they are hiring so many people it looks shady as fuck,” said Sam Geduldig, a Republican lobbyist. And he has more direct knowledge than most: Geduldig acknowledged that he himself pitched Juul on his services before it went on its K Street hiring spree.
The company is also buying up some of the most expensive advertising real estate in Washington. In 2019 alone, Juul has sponsored the influential Politico Playbook newsletter—which caters to congressional staffers, administration officials, and political operatives—for three weeks. On top of that, the company has sponsored the spinoff Massachusetts Playbook for four weeks, the California Playbook for three weeks, the Illinois Playbook for three weeks, the New Jersey Playbook for two weeks, and the New York Playbook for one week. There are no set prices for weekly sponsorships, but a source says it can cost approximately $115,000 to sponsor just the mainstay Playbook (which comes out in the morning and the evening) for one week.
“I have never seen a lobbying campaign like this before,” said one senior congressional aide. “It’s just crazy.”
The throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach is aimed, industry officials say, at warding off zealous Trump administration officials and members of Congress instinctively skeptical of—or hostile to—any nicotine product. Already, Juul is attempting to placate skeptics with policy compromises such as its support for legislation to raise the national smoking age to 21.
“They are worried about other shit,” said one lobbyist who works with the industry. “Twenty-one is the ship that is sailing, so might as well say you’re for it.” From the company’s perspective, under-21 customers make up a small fraction of its business but the vast majority of its political and public relations challenges. Getting rid of both would be a clear win.
Juul’s outreach to Latino and African-American leaders, the lobbyist said, is an effort to inoculate itself even further. With Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, support for Juul among black and Hispanic lawmakers could be crucial to warding off future threats, particularly those that might originate in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.
“There is understandably quite a bit of concern that the [Senator] Dick Durbins of the world will introduce draconian anti-vape legislation,” said one Republican operative who has worked with tobacco companies. “It won’t be enough to have Republicans try and shut that down. But in addition to that, there are Republicans who are hostile to vape too. You can’t take a purely partisan approach to this.”
Juul, for its part, maintains that its outreach to communities of color is a natural extension of a larger advocacy campaign focused on a host of different groups that might be amenable to both its policy goals and its larger mission to get smokers to switch to their product.
“We engage with lawmakers, regulators, public health officials, and advocates from across the country and from all different backgrounds for the same reason—to drive awareness of our goal to switch adult smokers off of combustible cigarettes and to combat underage use so we keep Juul out of the hands of young people,” a Juul spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Indeed, the company’s lobbying strategy has been thoroughly bipartisan. In September, it brought on the firm S-3 Group, which assigned the account to a number of veteran Republican staffers, including one-time aides to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, former House GOP leader Eric Cantor, and Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt.
But on the Democratic side, Juul’s recent lobbying hires include advocates with deep ties to communities of color. Its top federal lobbyist, Chaka Burgess of the Empire Consulting Group, is also a board member of the Congressional Black Caucus’s political action committee, to which Juul’s own PAC donated $5,000 last year.
Burgess did not return a request for comment. His role is broader than outreach just to the CBC, or the African-American community. But Juul also brought on a firm this year that specializes in just that sort of outreach. Fulcrum Public Affairs bills itself as “the only 100% black and Latinx-owned government relations firm in Washington, D.C..” Its principals, Oscar Ramirez and Dana Thompson, are former aides to Obama Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), respectively.
As Juul’s registered lobbyists work to make inroads among black and Latino lawmakers—the company has also donated to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last year—it has also brought on less formal advocates who’ve made overtures to leading civil rights groups regarding the potential public health benefits of Juul among communities where cigarettes are particularly prevalent.
Leading that effort has been Ben Jealous, a former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Maryland. Also involved in that outreach has been Heather Foster, a veteran Democratic aide who coordinated outreach to civil rights groups on behalf of the Obama White House’s Office of Public Engagement.
A Jealous aide confirmed that he was working for Juul “in a formal manner.”
Foster’s involvement with Juul has not been previously reported, and her title and precise role was not immediately clear. Her bio at the public affairs firm Widmeyer Communications, her former employer, describes her as an expert in “communicating public policy to civic, nonprofit, business and community leaders” with an emphasis on “developing issue advocacy campaigns and engagement with the federal government.” Foster, who did not respond to inquiries regarding her work for Juul, sat on the host committee of the Democratic National Committee’s African American Leadership Summit in Atlanta over the weekend.
Jealous, a Juul consultant, has reached out on the company’s behalf to prominent figures such as Sharpton, who also said he’d spoken with Foster about the company.
“It was both health and criminal justice and the concerns about health,” Sharpton recalled in an interview last week of his conversations with Jealous and Foster. “The argument was that people who smoke Juul would get off regular cigarettes.” Sharpton said Jealous and Foster provided him with academic and scientific material to support their case. “We are not clear on the medical evidence that they sent us,” Sharpton said. “You have some that say it helps and some who say it hasn’t.”
His chief concern regarding nicotine products generally, Sharpton said, are laws that create black markets for cigarettes—laws that, in the view of many civil rights groups, put African-Americans at greater risk of police misconduct. He pointed specifically to the case of Eric Garner, a black man who was killed by New York police in 2014 while being detained for illegally selling untaxed cigarettes on a street corner.
As it happens, a top Juul executive has also made that precise argument, that crackdowns on nicotine products tend to create black markets where cops are more likely to target individuals—particularly black men—illegally selling “bootlegged” versions. Shortly after taking a position as the company’s senior director for strategic partnerships, Courtney Snowden, a former deputy mayor of the District of Columbia, spoke at a panel event in Washington on tobacco policy. According to two sources familiar with the event, one of the people on the panel went after Sharpton—who was not present—over his controversial collaboration with some tobacco companies to warn of the pitfalls of tobacco crackdowns for the black community in particular.
The sources said that Snowden came to Sharpton’s defense, and specifically invoked Garner’s death to argue the unintended consequences of stricter laws on tobacco products. One of the sources who relayed the anecdote said she was simply defending Sharpton from what she considered an unfair attack, not making a case for Juul specifically.
But the invocation of Garner has clear undertones: the black community is disproportionately affected not just by the health effects of cigarettes, but also by the way that lawmakers have treated nicotine products for decades. At the top of the agenda for supporters of Juul and similar products is ensuring that they are not branded with the same stigma as the combustible tobacco products with which they compete. Those supporters consider the black community to be a constituency particularly amenable to that argument, but say that little such outreach has taken place in the past. Juul’s hiring spree, they say, appears to indicate that the company has recognized the opportunity.
“It’s about time someone’s reaching out to the communities that need the most help,” said Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the Consumer Choice Center and a leading vaping advocate, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
But Stier acknowledged that, beyond potential public health benefits, there’s also a political upside to the strategy.
“If you’re making arguments like I often make about consumer choice, those arguments on the e-cig front don’t always resonate with the people who represent a disproportionate number of smokers,” Stier said. “So you may not make the same argument to Rand Paul that you would to a congressman in the African-American community.”