Faced with a looming ban on e-cigarettes and vaping products, JUUL, the vape-giant, filed paperwork to kickstart a ballot measure Tuesday that would enshrine the right to sell them in stone.
Of course, regular readers of this column won’t be surprised by this move. In April I highlighted that JUUL hired campaign consultants David Ho (who ran a PAC to support London Breed’s mayoral run) and Nate Allbee (who played key roles in progressive supervisor campaigns), demonstrating that they were ready to throw down at the ballot.
And now they are making good on that threat.
Considering that tobacco giant Altria— the parent company of Phillip Morris — just spent $12 billion for a stake in JUUL, I’m going to say it’s an easy bet they’ve got millions to drop into a San Francisco ballot fight. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Last year, Big Tobacco spent roughly $12 million to swat down San Francisco’s proposed flavored tobacco ban last year.
They lost. Overwhelmingly.
All this, and the vape-cartridge ban itself hasn’t even passed the Board of Supervisors yet. Proposed by Supervisor Shamann Walton and City Attorney Dennis Herrera, it’s intended to protect kids, who are increasingly puffing the pernicious product.
JUUL is all too aware of this.
Titled in a wonderful, Orweillan fashion “An Act to Prevent Youth Use of Vapor Products,” the measure’s proponents argue, in the legal text, that this would tighten legal protections to ensure people who are under 21 aren’t sold vape tobacco products. It isn’t clear if they’re aiming for 2019 or 2020 for the measure, but the Department of Elections told me they’ll need 9,500 qualifying signatures — which usually requires collecting 15,000-25,000 real signatures to achieve — by July 8 to qualify for this year’s ballot or within 180 days for 2020.
The ballot measure was turned in to the Department of Elections by JUUL Supply Chain and Operations Executive Jennifer Hochstatter, according to city records.
Despite the measure’s kid-friendly message, Walton isn’t buying it.
“I knew that a company like JUUL would try and come up with a maneuver to continue to harm our young people and people in general,” Walton told me Wednesday morning. “This is not about harm reduction, this is purely about profits and risking the health of young people, and pushing a lifetime of addiction in order to earn as much money as possible.”
Still, it’s a smart play by JUUL.
Much of the media coverage around vaping has highlighted what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has called an “epidemic” of teen vaping use. That’s why lawmakers are targeting vape products, and not just regular cigarettes: Because young people are particularly lured by social media videos showing vape smoking tricks and by the products’ high-tech looks. In 2018 teen use of vaping tobacco skyrocketed.
This isn’t just anecdotal. Survey after survey after survey, many of which I’ve detailed in previous columns, show that use climbing in 2018.
Here in San Francisco, vaping use declined in teens from 2016 to 2017 — but we don’t yet have data for last year. Odds are, San Francisco’s use data matches the national numbers, experts told me.
Anecdotally, when I talked to kids at Marina Middle School last month, they told me older siblings and relatives often buy the vapes and hand them down to minors. They’re seen as cool, and those students have seen their friends vaping in Moscone Park, in the bathroom before class and even sneaking puffs during class.
So, targeting that bad press, JUUL’s measure reads, “No person shall knowingly purchase a vapor product for another person who is under the age of 21, or provide a vapor product to another person who is under the age of 21 without charge, for nominal charge, or barter or exchange.”
Essentially, they’re going after every kid’s older brother and sister. It also tightens restrictions on online e-cigarette sales, including limiting the number of vape devices an online retailer can sell to San Franciscans and requiring buyers to upload a photo of their California ID.
But there’s also a few sneaky tidbits in the measure. Firstly, by enshrining the right to sell vaping products in law by ballot measure, they guarantee the Board of Supervisors can’t ban vaping cartridges at the board.
Instead, the supes would have to go to the ballot. But JUUL thought of that, too.
Their “Act to Prevent Youth Use of Vapor Products” contains what’s euphemistically known as a “poison pill” measure to automatically defeat any ballot measure “to prohibit the sale” of vaping products, should JUUL’s measure win more votes.
Jon Golinger, an election law professor at Golden Gate University and author of “Saving San Francisco’s Heart: How to win elections, reclaim our city, and keep SF a special place,” said JUUL’s effort is from the standard corporate playbook.
“It’s a classic sleazy corporate abuse of the ballot initiative process aimed at heading off stronger regulations to protect their profits,” Golinger said. “It only covers under 21 sales, brands them ‘vapor products’ (the preferred tobacco company marketing term) rather than e-cigarettes, and has a ‘poison pill’ written in it that would kill any competing ballot measure.”
As Golinger said, we’ve seen this before.
But The City knocked out flavored tobacco last year and Big Soda in 2016. E-cigs are just next in line.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at Facebook.com/FitztheReporter.