Swamp Thang: JUUL Vaping Firm Hires Ben Jealous To Lobby D.C.

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Written by Dana Sanchez
Ben Jealous
Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous speaks at a campaign rally in October 2018, in Bethesda, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Juul, the maker of enormously popular vape products, has been blamed for a teen vaping epidemic that has been called an “addiction crisis.”

Maker of the best-known e-cigarette on the market, Juul has seen sales skyrocket in the past year, increasing 800 percent. Now valued at $15 billion, the company makes a variety of flavors and a vape product that looks about as compact as a flash drive. Teens love it, and the company has been accused of marketing to them.

The Silicon Valley company hopes to avert its own PR crisis by hiring Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP, to lobby lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

By currying favor with Black Americans, Juul hopes to win allies in the Democratic Party who can help it navigate a high-stakes legislative and regulatory minefield, Daily Beast reported.

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By 2018, the number of high school seniors who say they vaped nicotine in the past 30 days doubled over the previous year — from 11 percent to nearly 21 percent, according to the National Institutes of Health survey. That was the largest increase ever recorded for any substance in the survey’s 43-year history, Vox reported. By then, Juul Labs owned more than 75 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette market.

The company has hired lobbyists and consultants with ties to Black and Latino lawmakers, steered money to congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses, and made overtures to civil rights groups. It has enlisted the services of Jealous, 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, according to The Fix. And it asked Rev. Al Sharpton for his support.

Juul has hired more than 80 lobbyists in D.C. and state capitals in a staffing binge “so prolific that other influence peddlers wonder if the company is gearing up for a political crisis,” Daily Beast reported.

Vaping advocates have promoted their products as a way to get Black communities disproportionately hooked on nicotine to abandon cigarettes. 

“I think (e-cigarettes are) somewhere between three-quarters as dangerous as a cigarette and as dangerous,” said Stanton Glantz, UCSF Center for Tobacco Control and Education Director, in a CNBC interview.  

Juul has been buying up some of the most expensive advertising real estate in Washington, D.C. and sponsoring influential Playbook newsletters, Daily Beast reported. “I have never seen a lobbying campaign like this before,” a senior congressional aide said. “It’s just crazy.”

Corporations have so much power, money and influence that they influence politicians to the exclusion of regular folks. Juul is not alone in trying to buy Black lobbyists who can appeal to African American communities.

Facebook’s head of public policy, Neil Potts, has a history of lobbying for The Swamp. Many people got to know his name during a Congressional Hearing on online hate speech when Potts was bombarded by racist comments on the live stream of the hearing.

Netflix recruited Dean Garfield, former CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, to oversee its global public policy.

Financial services are turning to former top staffers from the Congressional Black Caucus in a trend that reflects the growing power of the CBC and the increased scrutiny the industry is facing under the Democratic House, The Hill reported.

The financial industry was one of the last to desegregate, “and its power, in terms of providing access to capital, and its power to deny capital, has had a disproportionate … harmful impact on Black communities for centuries,” a former congressional aide told The Hill.

Companies are realizing they need to do better in hiring diverse talent, said Michael Williams, founder of the Williams Group. 

Jealous served as the president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 2008 to 2013. A Rhodes scholar, Jealous is credited with re-energizing the country’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. He was the Democratic candidate for governor in Maryland in 2018, but lost to incumbent GOP Gov. Larry Hogan.

Jealous is also a venture capitalist and former partner at Kapor Capital in Oakland, California, which invests in underrepresented founders. He helped Kapor find small companies working on social justice issues that needed seed capital but lacked connections to Silicon Valley, according to the Baltimore Sun. “But one of the firms Jealous backed was accused of violating payday lending regulations and fined millions,” the Sun reported.

In 2019, Jealous ended his Kapor service and launched 20X Ventures, a Baltimore-based consulting and investment firm, according to a February 2018 report.

Will companies who are trying to manipulate the law have a better chance if they get a Black person out front? Are they using Black lobbyists to create new laws or dilute concerns about people’s health and overpowering the will of the voters?

“Corporations go to the Black politicians increasingly to lobby for unholy reasons,” said Jamarlin Martin, founder and CEO of Moguldom.com and GHOGH podcast. “They want to influence the politics, congress and senate but they seem to prey particularly on the Black politicians.”

Juul brought on a firm this year that specializes in outreach to the African-American community, Daily Beast reported. Fulcrum Public Affairs describes itself as “the only 100-percent 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).

When rumors started circulating in February that Jealous was working with Juul, Jealous dismissed them as “internet chatter” in a text to Maryland Matters.

JUUL spokesman Ted Kwong later confirmed in an email that Jealous is serving as an adviser to JUUL CEO Kevin Burns on youth prevention and other social impact goals, Maryland Matters reported in May.

It’s an outgrowth of the work Jealous’ new consulting and investment firm, 20X Ventures, is doing for the e-cigarette company, Kwong said.


About Dana Sanchez

Dana Sanchez was born in South Africa and is a U.S. citizen. After working in advertising, she went back to school and earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of South Florida. As a business writer, she won regional and national writing awards. As editor of a daily newspaper, she coordinated staff writers, freelancers and photographers in the fast-paced environment of daily news. Dana was an editor at Moguldom Media Group for four years, helping to build and manage a team of staff and freelance writers. She works now on Moguldom.com for Nubai Ventures. A long-distance hiker and cyclist, she writes about the business of technology.