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As Pressure From Regulators Increases, Juul Shifts Its Strategy


The vaping company Juul Labs finds itself under siege by politicians, regulators and doctors. It's happening amid reports that a dozen people have died after using vaping products, and hundreds of others have become ill from products related to vaping. As efforts to regulate the industry have increased, Juul has poured millions of dollars into lobbying and public relations campaigns. NPR's Jim Zarroli has this report.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Juul was founded four years ago, promising it could help smokers quit. And it quickly became a vaping powerhouse. At first, the company faced hardly any regulation, and it had to spend very little money on lobbying - just $120,000 in 2017. But as efforts to regulate vaping have intensified, Juul has ramped up its lobbying. Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics says the company spent nearly $2 million in the first six months of this year alone.

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ: As a new company, it's striking how much they're spending in just a very short period of time.

ZARROLI: Among tobacco companies, only Philip Morris and Altria spend more on lobbying. Meredith McGehee, executive director of the campaign finance reform group Issue One, says the money helps Juul get in the door to speak to regulators and lawmakers.

MEREDITH MCGEHEE: They're out there trying to convince people that Juul is a good alternative to smoking, and they want to be able to go in, get in front of policymakers and make that case.

ZARROLI: And that's just what Juul spends at the federal level. As the tobacco executives who now run Juul know all too well, many anti-tobacco laws have originated in cities and states, and Juul has hired dozens of lobbyists in statehouses and city halls across the country. Denise Roth Barber directs the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

DENISE ROTH BARBER: They spend copious amounts of money lobbying the lawmakers who get elected. And that's where the rubber really hits the road, and they are swarming the capitals in a way that regular citizens are not.

ZARROLI: And this doesn't include expenditures the company doesn't have to disclose, like the money paid to public relations firms or to independent groups that may support its agenda. For example, Juul's website contains links to the Switch network. It helps members of the public find a pro-vaping rally to attend or write a letter to their members of Congress. Stanford's Robert Jackler researches the impact of tobacco advertising.

ROBERT JACKLER: It sounds as though it's an upswelling of the population, but it's actually driven by the company to simulate it, make it look like it's something that came from the grassroots amongst the voters.

ZARROLI: But it's not clear how well any of this will work. Although it's not known what exactly is causing the lung illnesses, Jackler says concerns about vaping are growing.

JACKLER: This recent rash of acute and very serious and sometimes lethal e-cigarette-related illnesses in the lung have very much focused and changed the national dialogue.

ZARROLI: As criticism has mounted, Juul has agreed to stop advertising in the United States and has fired its CEO. It's also promised not to lobby against a proposed Trump administration ban on flavored vaping products. But the company is still hoping to push back against other proposed anti-vaping regulations, and that seems to be getting harder to do as time goes on.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNIE'S "ANTHONIO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.

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