Vape and Switch: How Martha Coakley Joined Up with Juul

Seth Wenig/AP Photo

Late last year, Marlboro manufacturer Altria bought a 35 percent stake in Juul for $12.8 billion.

Former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley is most known on the national scene for two embarrassing electoral losses to Republicans in one of the nation’s bluest states.

Mocking her improbable defeats to former Senator Scott Brown and current Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, both Republicans, Politico labeled her “Martha Chokeley.” But when it came to standing up to corporate giants harming Massachusetts residents, Coakley did not choke. As the state’s attorney general from 2007 to 2015, she launched investigations and lawsuits challenging the banking industry’s mortgage lending and foreclosure practices, and pushed for aggressive regulation of electronic cigarettes.

Now Coakley seems intent on tarnishing her consumer protection legacy as well.

Last week, Politico reported that Coakley was hired by San Francisco–based e-cigarette maker Juul Labs to work on the company’s growing government affairs team, which has staffed up in recent months amid growing scrutiny at the state and federal level.

The Bay State’s current attorney general, Maura Healey, has followed Coakley’s lead in investigating Juul and online e-cigarette retailers over allegations they market vaping devices to minors. After years of success in fighting cigarette use, “we’re starting to see teen smoking increase, and the vaping industry is responsible for putting all of that progress at risk,” Healey said in a recent speech a Boston-area high school.

Coakley’s hiring has rightfully troubled public-health advocates. “Juul is building an army of lawyers and influencers to prevent meaningful regulation across the country,” Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told The Boston Globe. “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.”

The reaction in Boston has not been approving, to say the least. “Martha Coakley did not exactly join ISIS—but she just might as well have, given the almost universal condemnation of the former Massachusetts attorney general from Democrats and progressives over her latest career move,” wrote Boston Herald columnist Peter Lucas.

Nevertheless, Coakley’s switch highlights how former state attorneys general are highly sought-after by the corporate lobbying and defense bar. Since going to work for law firm Foley Hoag in 2015, Coakley represented fantasy sports website DraftKings on government affairs, and testified on the company’s behalf at the Massachusetts statehouse. Coakley got the DraftKings gig just as Healey was reviewing the practices of fantasy sports websites. And as Healey and other attorneys general scrutinized student loan collection firm Navient, which faces multiple allegations of deceptive practices, they hired—guess who!—Coakley.

By hiring a former state attorney general or a top deputy, companies enjoy expert knowledge of the legal and public-relations terrain, as well as potentially valuable personal connections. Many corporate law firms have specialized state attorneys general practices staffed with former officials. For example, Squire Patton Boggs, which employs Colorado’s former chief deputy AG as head of its attorneys general practice group, brags on its website, “We ensure our clients are aware of and engaged with the right people so that issues can be resolved amicably and, whenever possible, without investigations or litigation.”

Launched just four years ago, Juul has quickly consolidated control over the vaping market with its device that looks like a thumb drive and can be recharged through a USB port. The product is so ubiquitous that teenagers call using it “juuling.”

Late last year, Marlboro manufacturer Altria bought a 35 percent stake in Juul for $12.8 billion, a move partly designed to help “smooth over the e-cigarette maker’s rocky relationship with the Food and Drug Administration,” according to The Wall Street Journal. As part-owner, Altria can use its sales force to sell Juul devices next to Marlboro cigarettes in retail stores around the country, and its lobbying force to stave off government investigators. “It would not at all surprise me if we collaborated with [Juul’s] regulatory team on their FDA filings,” Altria’s chief executive, Howard Willard, said at the time. “We have years of experience.”

If Coakley, formerly co-chair of the National Association of Attorneys General’s tobacco committee, feels any shame about her association with Altria, she sure doesn’t show it.

Coakley applauded what she characterized as Juul’s “commitment to eliminate combustible cigarettes.” In a statement to money and politics news outlet Sludge, she said that 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.”

There is ample reason to doubt the commitment of Coakley’s new employer to solely market vaping products to adults. A study of Juul’s advertising published in January by Stanford University researchers found that Juul’s initial “Vaporized” launch campaign “featured models in their 20s appearing in trendy clothes engaged in poses and movements more evocative of underage teens than mature adults.” Juul’s principal advertising themes of pleasure, relaxation, socialization, romance, holidays, and satisfaction are “closely aligned with that of traditional tobacco advertising,” the report concluded.

A company spokeswoman told Vox that this launch campaign was “short-lived” and that the company’s current ads feature adult cigarette smokers who switched to Juul. Last month, Juul’s CEO, Kevin Burns, expressed support for state laws raising the legal age of purchase to 21.

While Juul and e-cigarette companies may insist that kids are not their target market, the use of e-cigarettes among high school and middle school students is soaring, reversing decades of progress against nicotine addiction. Nearly 21 percent of high school students were current e-cigarette users last year, up from only 1.5 percent in 2011. Among middle school students, current e-cigarette use increased to nearly 5 percent in 2018 from 0.6% in 2011.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s attempts to regulate the sale of e-cigarettes have been lackluster. Two years ago, the Trump administration delayed enforcement until 2022 of a rule expanding the Food and Drug Administration’s authority to approve e-cigarettes and cigars.

After the huge surge in vaping among teenagers became apparent, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who left the agency at the beginning of this month, moved up the FDA’s e-cigarette compliance deadline by a year and issued rules limiting where vaping products with fruity flavors can be sold. Gottlieb’s step, while accompanied by tough talk about Juul and other e-cigarette makers, fell far short of what public-health experts believe is truly needed—an FDA ban on all flavored e-cigarettes and serious curbs on marketing.

Coakley’s new job is likely to keep her busy. Just this week, a group of Senate Democrats led by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) sent Juul a detailed list of 13 questions about its advertising, marketing, social media, age verification practices, and many other aspects of its business. The senators pilloried Juul for its Altria investment, given Altria’s “long and sordid history of spending billions to entice children to smoke through targeted campaigns that intentionally lied about the science and health effects from cigarettes.”

It’s easy to see why big companies like Juul are eager to hire former top law enforcement officials to grease the path for regulations and settlements that will protect their profits, while sacrificing the future of our nation’s children. It’s far more difficult to understand why a former consumer advocate would choose to help.

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