Massachusetts officials blasted Juul. Employees still opened their wallets

A review of campaign finance records shows this state's congressional delegation received more money from Juul employees in 2020 than all but 5 other delegations.

An edited photo shows Massachusetts senators, representative, and candidates who received donations during the 2020 election cycle from employees of Juul Labs. Jesse Mermell not pictured. (Graphic by Dakota Antelman, All photos used under Creative Commons License)

Employees of the e-cigarette maker Juul donated more money to Massachusetts congressional candidates in 2020 than they did to the entire delegations of 45 other states, a review of campaign finance data finds. 

That windfall for everyone from Elizabeth Warren, to losing fourth congressional district candidate Jesse Mermell comes even after local leaders spent most of the last two years relentlessly criticizing Juul’s marketing of addictive products.

“Selling tobacco products and e-cigarettes to children is illegal,” Rep. Kathrine Clark of the 5th Congressional District said in one recent press release. “But that hasn’t stopped companies like Juul from intentionally pushing their harmful devices onto our kids and giving rise to a new public health crisis in America.”

“Juul's tactics are right out of the Big Tobacco playbook,” Rep Ayanna Pressley tweeted, in a more specific critique. “For decades, Big Tobacco targeted black communities to the point where almost 90% of black smokers used menthols. It is disturbing that Juul promotes menthol to exploit black people.”

Outgoing 4th Congressional District Rep. Joe Kennedy III, meanwhile, has called federal oversight of vaping a “catastrophic regulatory failure.” 

In spite of that collective record, however, a Substantive review of records available through the Center for Responsive Politics shows seven representatives, senators and candidates brought in $12,859 in individual donations from Juul workers through the 2020 election cycle alone. 

Only Kentucky, California, Arizona, North Carolina and Texas saw more such money pour into their elections. 

Individually, Clark led the way in Massachusetts, gathering $5,600. Progressive incumbents Ayanna Pressley and Elizabeth Warren followed with $2,800 and $2,597 raised respectively. From there, Alex Morse, the Holyoke mayor who challenged Rep. Richard Neal for his seat in Congress, this fall, also cracked quadruple digits with $1,427. 

Kennedy, senate candidate Shannon Liss-Riodron, and Mermell rounded out the remaining list of individuals receiving money. 

Notably, this cash does not come directly from Juul. 

These aren’t the kind of PAC or Super PAC donations commonly discussed in campaign finance conversations, either. 

Rather, this money is largely the fruit of small dollar fundraising efforts that enticed donations from people who happened to work at Juul. 

In effect, these donors quietly supported officials openly opposed to their employer.

Pressley has, after all, continually called for accountability in cases where people using e-cigarettes have died of mysterious lung illnesses.

In March, Clark supported new legislation to increase taxes on e-cigarettes and to ban the sale of such products over the internet, among other things. 

Locally, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to ban the sale of vaping products last fall, before reversing course in December. Since then, state legislators have pushed to regulate the sale of flavored products, just as attorney general Maura Healey has sued Juul and outright blamed them for creating a new epidemic of youth nicotine addiction. 

In the addiction, harm reduction, law enfourcement and recovery communities, opinion remains split on larger discussions of e-cigarettes. 

“Flavor bans will only stand to create a significant new black market,” one former federal drug agent told the pro-vaping publication, Vaping Post, in August. “This includes both cross-state border smuggling and counterfeit tobacco.”

Others argue such vehement political prosecution of vape products constitutes a practice of unfair scapegoating aimed at protecting the interests of “Big Tobacco” companies. 

They say e-cigarettes remain vital tools in long term battles against pre-existing nicotine addiction.

Rep. Kathrine Clark’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article. 

Paul Craney, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, however, did respond, speaking broadly in reaction to Substantive reporting and its reflection on local campaign finance culture. 

“Politicians cannot be expected to know every detail of the people who financially support them,” he wrote. “But when questions come up, they should be asked and their response should be judged by the voters.”

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As people battle addictions, be them to nicotine, alcohol, narcotics, or other substances, political maneuvering on Beacon Hill, at City Hall, or in Washington can quickly spur real world impacts.

Through Substantive, I aim to cover those political issues with awareness of individual struggles on a personal level. Elections are not meaningless foot races after all. And campaign finance is not a game of monopoly.

So, if you have a story you would like to share about e-cigarette use in particular, please reach out…

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