It’s terrible timing for the electronic cigarette manufacturer Juul that lung illnesses believed to be related to e-cigarette use have just been reported in 14 states. These 94 cases of still-unsolved lung illness tied to vaping come less than three months before San Francisco votes on Prop. C, a November ballot measure meant to undo the San Francisco vapor product sales ban, and sponsored by the vape company Juul.
But Juul has an important weapon to sway voters — a whole lot of dollars.
Juul has spent more than $4.5 million on their measure to defeat the vaping ban according to campaign filings at the San Francisco Ethics Commission.
That’s substantially more than every November ballot measure and candidate combined. The four other ballot measure committees, and every candidate running for mayor, supervisor, district attorney, or any other office, spent a combined total of just $2,832,286, according to the most current campaign filings.
It’s technically not Juul spending all this money; it’s their self-created political committee called the Coalition for Reasonable Vaping Regulation. But Juul is responsible for every single dollar of contributions to that committee, showing that the vaping product company will spare no expense just to beat one vaping ban in one city and county in the U.S.
“Juul is a San Francisco company,” says Nate Allbee, communications director for the Coalition for Reasonable Vaping Regulation. “They employ thousands of San Franciscans, and thousands of San Franciscans use their product to stop smoking.”
Allbee says that for Juul, this is personal. “They care really deeply about their hometown, and their hometown is the first in the country to outright ban the product that they sell,” he tells SF Weekly.
It’s an oddity to see one ballot measure campaign spending more than everyone else combined in a San Francisco election, but we have seen these sums of corporate money pumped into out local elections before.
Airbnb spent $8 million to successfully defeat short-term rental regulations in 2015. In 2008, PG&E spent more than $10 million to beat a local measure that would have approved a city-owned public power system. Last year, tobacco company R.J. Reynolds spent nearly $12 million in an unsuccessful effort to fight a local flavored tobacco ban.
But those numbers are all final totals tallied after the election was over. This vote is still three months away, and Juul’s contributions could end up surpassing those.
“It’s not unprecedented, but it’s certainly significant,” says Jon Golinger, a veteran political consultant who is not affiliated with either campaign (though prior to this ballot measure, he has consulted for prominent tobacco opponent Louise Renne).
Unlike private citizens, corporations can pump unlimited and unregulated amounts of money into their own campaigns. “The Supreme Court has considered ballot measures, and corporate contributions to ballot measures, as protected by the First Amendment,” Golinger tells SF Weekly. “We can’t limit them even in a reasonable way.”
You may have already seen TV ads or mailings urging you to vote Yes on Juul’s vape ban
overturning, which represent about $2 million of the money they’ve spent. But another significant chunk has gone to political consultants, running the spectrum from far-left progressives to the biggest Trump supporters.
“In addition to doing straight up advertising,” Golinger says. “Juul has hired up every available and willing political operative in town, of every political persuasion.”
The highest paid of these is Mosher/Whitehurst, a middle-of-the-road business and political consultancy who helped get the City College parcel tax passed in 2016. The San Francisco Chronicle also reported in May that Juul hired the firm of Tony Fabrizio, one of Donald Trump’s top pollsters. Allbee is a political operative who managed Matt Haney’s successful 2018 District 6 win and a former legislative aide to Sup. Hillary Ronen. They’ve also hired David Ho, a field organizer for former Sup. Jane Kim.
“They can throw around $15,000 to $20,000-a-month retainers like they’re pieces of See’s Candy.” Gollinger says. “They have so much money they’re running out of traditional ways to spend it.”
Juul may need to spend every penny they can against this measure. San Francisco voters, and Californians in general, have routinely resisted the big-money campaign efforts of the tobacco industry. San Francisco voters supported the flavored tobacco ban last year, and state voters approved tripling the cigarette tax in 2016.
Juul hopes to break the habit of the tobacco industry losing at the San Francisco polls, this time with a broader coalition of consultants, and presumably the constituent groups of they’ve represented in the past. Juul could also try other approaches that vary from past doomed tobacco-affiliated campaigns.
“It’s still August. There’s a lot more to come,” Golinger says. Expect a lot more money to come, too.