[image-1] As discussion over whether e-cigarette companies should make an effort to curb their proliferation among teens, the growing industry’s biggest player has staffed up to influence how that debate is framed in state legislatures and local governments, including in South Carolina.
A front page New York Times story on Sunday detailed the impact that at least six lobbyists working for Juul, the largest e-cigarette company, is already having on South Carolina laws being debated that could impact their business in the state.
In all, some 80 lobbyists are working nationwide on behalf of Juul Labs, which took a $12.8 billion investment last year from tobacco giant Altria for a 35 percent stake in the company. As of March, Juul reportedly controlled more than half of the American e-cig market despite only going on sale in 2015. Juul products are not allowed to be sold in the EU because they contain such high levels of nicotine.
The six lobbyists reported to be working with Juul Labs include Statehouse power players like Kenny Bingham, a former House majority leader. The Times reports that three of the lobbyists work for McGuireWoods Consulting where Jim Hodges, the former Democratic governor, is the president and CEO.
In February, the state House passed two bills related to e-cigarettes. One bill (H 3420) prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from entering vape shops without an adult and prohibits vaping on school campuses. An early version of the bill also would have required an adult to sign for deliveries of e-cigarette products ordered online. That provision, according to the NYT report, was removed after consultation with Juul lobbyists.
“They had a little heartburn with it because they felt they were already employing a robust process for verification,” state Rep. Beth Bernstein, a Democrat from Columbia and the bill’s chief sponsor, told the Times.
That bill ultimately passed the Senate and was signed by Gov. Henry McMaster on April 26.
Another bill (H 3274) would prevent local governments from passing their own regulations of e-cigarettes. In February, Myrtle Beach officials proposed a measure that would have changed zoning rules for shops that sell e-cigarettes in addition to other tobacco and cannabis derivatives like CBD. The local city manager made the case that the shops affect a tourist market like Myrtle Beach different than other communities.
That bill passed the House with bipartisan support, including from Rep. Todd Rutherford, the top Democrat in the House, and local Rep. Wendell Gilliard, who was a sponsor. Charleston Reps. Bennett, Mace, Moore, Simmons, and Sottile also voted to pass. Among those who voted against the measure were local Reps. Cogswell, McCoy, Pendarvis, and Stavrinakis.
On the House floor, Rutherford argued that since the bill would govern what could be sold in local jurisdictions, it was different than proposed plastic bag bans, which do not relate to products for sale. Pendarvis, disagreeing with Minority Leader Rutherford, said that the principle of Home Rule should be observed to let local governments make their own laws.
The Senate version of the bill (S 492), whose sponsors include Charleston-area Sens. Paul Campbell and Larry Grooms, is being held up by Democratic Sen. Marlon Kimpson. Many local preemptions like these, Kimpson says, are “cut-and-paste jobs” from groups like ALEC, which creates cookie-cutter, industry-friendly laws for state politicians across the nation.
“I think local government is in the best position to monitor what is going on across the street,” Kimpson says when asked why he put a block on the bill, which currently sits in the Senate medical affairs committee.