Juul Labs, target of $440 million settlement, has given Illinois pols over $120,000 since 2020

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel ‘Chris’ Welch has been a major recipient of the company’s giving, campaign-finance records show.

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A man exhales while smoking an e-cigarette.

A man exhales while smoking an e-cigarette.

Getty Images

Juul Labs — the e-cigarette giant that just agreed to a nearly $440 million settlement with states around the country that accused it of hooking minors on vaping and masking its dangers — has given more than $120,000 to Illinois politicians’ campaign funds since 2020, records show.

And Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, has been a major recipient of the company’s giving.

In announcing the settlement, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, whose office led the investigation, assailed Juul for “cynically calculated advertising campaigns” that “created a new generation of nicotine addicts.”

Juul “relentlessly marketed vaping products to underage youth,” “manipulated their chemical composition to be palatable to inexperienced users” and “misled consumers about the nicotine content and addictiveness of its products,” Tong said.

According to Illinois State Board of Elections records, Juul, based in Washington, D.C., gave:

  • $10,000 to Democrats for the Illinois House — chaired by Welch — on Oct. 29, 2021.
  • $10,000 to People for Emanuel “Chris” Welch — Welch’s main campaign fund — on Oct. 14, 2021, and $1,000 to the fund on Oct. 21, 2020.
  • $10,000 to the Democratic Majority fund on Oct. 26, 2020. The political committee was controlled at the time by then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. While under federal investigation, Madigan resigned in February 2021, and Welch, his successor, took control of the fund and folded it into Democrats for the Illinois House.
Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, at the microphone, with Illinois Senate President Don Harmon earlier this year.

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, at the microphone, with Illinois Senate President Don Harmon earlier this year.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Welch didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

Asked about the contributions, a Juul spokesman says: “At Juul Labs our philosophy is to support political committees and other organizations on a bipartisan basis around the country that recognize the importance of our mission — to combat underage use and convert adult smokers away from combustible cigarettes. Like all other companies, we do not make contributions tied to specific legislation.”

In addition to the campaign money Welch has gotten from Juul, the speaker also has gotten contributions from Altria, the Virginia tobacco giant that is Juul’s largest investor and produces cigarette brands such as Marlboro. Altria gave:

  • $7,500 to Democrats for the Illinois House on Nov. 17, 2021.
  • $10,000 to Welch’s main campaign fund on Sept. 14, 2021.

Altria also gave $10,000 to Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, on Sept. 16, 2021, records show.

The company made three other campaign contributions, totaling $15,000, to a fund for Senate Democrats that’s overseen by Harmon, records show.

A Harmon spokesman says: “Over a 20-year career, President Harmon has consistently and aggressively promoted public health by discouraging use of physical and electronic cigarettes and passing a law preventing any tobacco sales to anyone under 21. His values will never be compromised by a political donation.”

Illinois isn’t part of the settlement of the investigation of Juul involving 33 states and Puerto Rico.

Separately, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office sued Juul in Cook County circuit court in December 2019, saying “the company intentionally has marketed its harmful nicotine products to minors, misrepresented the potency of nicotine in its products and misrepresented Juul’s products as smoking cessation devices.” The lawsuit is still pending.

Raoul got a $1,000 campaign contribution from Altria in 2006, when he was a state senator, years before the company made its multibillion-dollar investment in Juul.

In June, federal regulators ordered Juul to “stop selling and distributing” its products but have put that order on hold pending “additional review.”

In February 2021, two bills were introduced in Illinois taking aim at e-cigarettes and were overwhelmingly approved by legislators and signed into law in August 2021 by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

One of the laws “prohibits the use of cartoons, video game characters and popular children’s media to promote e-cigarette products.” It also forbids sellers from marketing e-cigarettes as a “low-risk product.”

A companion law allows regulators “to conduct compliance checks of retailers . . . to investigate whether such retailers are selling tobacco products, alternative nicotine products or e-cigarettes to persons under 21 years of age.”

Among the sponsors was state Sen. Christopher Belt, D-East St. Louis, who took two campaign contributions, in 2020 and 2021, totaling $2,500, from Juul, campaign-finance records show. Belt couldn’t be reached.

Records also show then-state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, got a $5,000 campaign contribution from Juul months before Pritzker tapped him as one of his deputy governors.

A Pritzker spokeswoman says, “At every turn, Deputy Gov. Manar has opposed the expansion of tobacco and vaping products and to insinuate that one campaign donation negates his votes on critical pieces of legislation regulating the industry is absurd.”

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