Juul boosts lobbying amid FDA scrutiny

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E-cigarette maker Juul is ramping up its Washington lobbying operation as it tries to head off potential regulatory threats from the Trump administration and Congress.

The company has been under scrutiny from Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulators and lawmakers from both parties amid a massive surge in popularity for its products among teens.

{mosads}Juul says e-cigarettes provide a healthier alternative for adult smokers and are an important tool to help wean them off traditional tobacco products. But critics say the devices are getting more children addicted, and the FDA is eyeing a crackdown on some of the most popular e-cig flavors.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in recent months announced a major crackdown on e-cigarette sales to minors, accusing manufacturers and retailers of contributing to an “epidemic” of use among kids and teenagers.

In late September, the FDA conducted a surprise inspection of Juul’s corporate headquarters and collected more than a thousand pages of documents.

Gottlieb also announced a possible ban on flavored e-liquids if five of the largest manufacturers can’t come up with adequate plans to help keep e-cigarettes out of the hands of those under the age of 18.

Amid this scrutiny, Juul has beefed up its Washington, D.C., office, and hired several former high-profile federal officials and regulators from both the Trump and Obama administrations.

Last week, Juul brought in Josh Raffel, a former senior communications aide and crisis communications expert who has worked closely with White House senior advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner — President Trump’s daughter and son-in-law.

The company boasts other well-connected former officials. Tevi Troy, Juul’s top policy executive, was deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in the George W. Bush administration.

Jerry Masoudi, a former chief counsel for the FDA under Bush, was hired as Juul chief legal officer this spring and Jim Esquea, an assistant HHS secretary during the Obama administration, was hired for their internal lobbying team.

The company has also been meeting with lawmakers in an attempt to show their commitment to stopping the rise of youth vaping and forestall any potential legislation against them.

The company insists the timing of the new hires is just a coincidence.

“Over the last seven months, we have grown our D.C. 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,” company spokeswoman Victoria Davis said in a statement to The Hill.

Juul has also been ramping up its spending. According to lobbying records, the company has hired three lobbying firms and spent $330,000 so far in 2018, compared to $120,000 on two firms in 2017.

Those moves come with the company and industry facing much tougher scrutiny from Washington and as Juul has solidified its place as the dominant player in the e-cigarette market.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Juul essentially has cornered the market for e-cigarettes. Sales of its devices grew more than sevenfold from 2016 to 2017, according to newly released data.

By December of 2017, Juul Labs accounted for nearly 1 in 3 e-cigarette sales nationally, giving it the largest market share in the United States. The company is valued at over $15 billion.

Juul is a small, battery-powered e-cigarette shaped like a USB drive. Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, and Juul has among the highest nicotine content of any e-cigarette on the U.S. market.

Juul comes in a variety of flavors and also uses nicotine salts, which can allow high levels of nicotine to be inhaled more easily and with less irritation.

Flavors that taste like fruit and candy are the most popular with teenagers and also account for the majority of Juul’s sales.

The industry is also facing new pressure from Congress to restrict sales of e-cigarettes to minors. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have introduced legislation that would place strong restrictions on e-cigarette flavorings and ban cigar flavorings altogether.

Durbin wrote to Juul in April, asking for more information and a commitment from the company to stop selling some of the most popular flavors that appeal to children, like Fruit Medley, Creme Brulee and Mango.

A Durbin aide said representatives from Juul came to speak with the senator after receiving the letter.

But the aide expressed skepticism at Juul’s claims.

“Their pitch was predictable and right out of Big Tobacco’s playbook: they never meant for their products to appeal to kids (despite the fruity and sweet flavors), they had no idea kids were using their products, they’ve done everything they can to address youth use, they really just want to help adult smokers quit. All of which rings hollow in the face of their marketing efforts,” the aide said.

Samir Soneji, an associate professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, said Juul is trying to aggressively position itself as an alternative to “combustible” tobacco. He said it’s not a surprise they are trying to get out ahead of any potential regulation.

Soneji cautioned that there’s no research that shows how teenagers might respond if popular e-cigarette flavors were banned.

“Would kids switch to tobacco, or would they stop using e-cigs outright? Nobody is sure. It’s an open question that nobody to date has answered,” Soneji said.

But he noted that there were high stakes for Juul and other e-cigarette companies.

“Juul is a new company and only sells e-cigarettes,” said Soneji.

“Regulation could hurt it worse than big tobacco.”

Tags Dick Durbin Donald Trump Ivanka Trump Jared Kushner Lisa Murkowski

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