Vape manufacturer JUUL Labs is welcoming top Donald Trump aide Johnny DeStefano to its ranks, a move that bolsters the company’s ties to Washington D.C. insiders and enhances its political clout.
Sources told CNN that Mr. DeStefano will serve JUUL, the world’s leading vape manufacturer, in an advisory position but is not expected to lobby for the controversial company. JUUL has gained notoriety in recent months for targeting kids, teens, and young adults with it advertising and marketing campaigns, which propelled product sales into the stratosphere and created a new generation of nicotine addicts.
Mr. DeStefano, 40, was one of the few White House advisers remaining from the beginning of Trump’s presidency and is expected to support the president’s 2020 reelection campaign. On Capitol Hill, he was viewed as a strong Trump emissary to the Republican establishment.
Mr. DeStefano ran the White House personnel office and was responsible for “staffing key jobs amid the chaos of the early days of the Trump Administration,” according to The Hill. He survived the tumult of the White House by “keeping a low profile and maintaining good relations with other top White House officials.”
Although he is widely credited for a series of White House successes, many criticized him for his role in the 2018 midterm elections, which saw the House slip out of the GOP’s control, handing Democrats enough power to strongarm the administration on a number of issues.
Mr. DeStefano will likely be a huge asset to JUUL as it steadily expands its influence on Capitol Hill. The vape company faced immense pressure from former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chief Scott Gottlieb, who led a crusade against JUUL and the broader vaping industry after studies showed kids vaping in “epidemic” numbers.
To deal with the FDA’s assault on vaping, JUUL has hired other figures with close ties to the Trump Administration and Capitol Hill, including Josh Raffel, a former spokesman for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
JUUL also employs policy executive Tevi Troy, former deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, and former Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley, who is on the company’s government affairs team, according to The Hill.
JUUL’s chief legal officer is Jerry Masoudi, former FDA chief counsel under Bush, and lobbyist Jim Esquea, who was former assistant HHS secretary under President Obama, is the company’s senior director of federal affairs. JUUL has also hired multiple lobbying firms to forge political inroads and relationships that will undoubtedly help stop anti-vaping regulations designed to protect minors from nicotine addiction.
The company has also made other efforts to expand its influence. Big Tobacco company Altria, which makes Marlboro cigarettes, earlier this year bought one-third of JUUL, boosting the company’s valuation to $38 billion and giving it access to Altria’s powerful tobacco lobby and other resources. JUUL now controls more than 75 percent of the vape industry and its sales continue to climb even after the government placed tighter restrictions on flavored vape products.
JUUL’s infiltration of Washington D.C. seems to be paying off. Dr. Gottlieb vacated his position at the FDA on April 5, casting doubt on the FDA’s future efforts to clamp down on the vaping industry. Dr. Gottlieb said his decision to leave the FDA was motivated purely by family reasons, but the FDA’s inaction in tackling the youth vaping epidemic since his departure has rattled lawmakers, health professionals and safety advocates.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) recently blasted Ned Sharpless, Dr. Gottlieb’s replacement at the FDA, after meeting with the agency to discuss its plans to beat back the epidemic of youth vaping. Sen. Durbin said the meeting was “one of the most disappointing and alarming” meetings in his 23 years on Capitol Hill.
“I walked away from that meeting with the belief that you have no intention of addressing this ‘public health epidemic’ — as your predecessor declared it — during your tenure at the FDA,” Durbin wrote, urging the FDA to act now to “protect children from a lifetime of addiction.”
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