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A Juul device, center, sits among other e-cigarettes. Juul is reportedly looking to locate a plant in Lexington County.  AP Photo/Steven Senne

COLUMBIA — Some S.C. lawmakers are pleased with the prospect of e-cigarette maker Juul Labs bringing a plant to the Midlands because of the jobs it would create, but anti-tobacco advocates see something much different: more money and influence for the industry.

Juul is considering an industrial park site near Columbia Metropolitan Airport in Lexington County for a plant that reportedly would employ about 825 people, according to state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington. That would provide well-paying jobs, especially needed by those in nearby rural areas, Shealy said. 

"My people in Lexington County are always looking for more jobs," she said.

A Juul spokesman, Ted Kwong, declined to confirm the company's interest in coming to South Carolina.

"We are continuously evaluating various new opportunities that can support our growth and help us give back to local communities," Kwong said in a statement. 

The company, however, has placed ads on job placement websites for manufacturing oversight and quality control positions at a Columbia-area Juul plant.

State Rep. Beth Bernstein, the Columbia Democrat who sponsored a recently enacted law aimed at curbing teen vaping, doesn't have an objection to the plant. Her bill made it unlawful for those under 18 even to be present in a smoke shop unless accompanied by an adult and added tighter rules to verify identification for online sales. 

Adults will continue to have the choice to buy these devices so there's no reason to reject the plant, she said. "It's going to be needed so why not South Carolinians to get the jobs?" Bernstein asked.

But a major economic investment in South Carolina could give Juul clout in the Statehouse.  

Beth Johnson, who advocates on tobacco issues for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, fears that the plant's coming would mean even more powerful persuasion by Juul on pending tobacco and vaping issues.

"It's scary to think about the power they'll have in our state," Johnson said. "How loud is their voice going to be?"

Companies such as Juul have been discreetly working though top lobbyists in the Statehouse and making their wishes known, according to Johnson.

One example she cites: A bill awaiting action in the Senate would preempt municipalities from creating tobacco-free zones, which is one of the key ways that anti-tobacco groups seek to rein in smoking and vaping. That bill will hold its place on the Senate calendar for next year's session if it cannot get through this year.

Johnson fears how much influence Juul would have next year after launching a local plant. 

All sides on the issue say they are concerned about the huge increase in teen use of e-cigarettes, which don't burn tobacco but contain nicotine.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimates 11.9 percent of S.C. high school students use e-cigarettes, a number that has been rising steeply over the past few years. 

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Anti-tobacco groups call e-cigarettes dangerous because their flavors can be enticing to young people and what they call marketing that targets young people. Juul and other manufacturers reject the notion that they are targeting teens, saying their products are a replacement for cigarettes for adults. 

Rebecca Jacobson, executive director of the S.C. Tobacco-Free Collaborative, notes that tobacco company Altria last year became a major investor in Juul, acquiring a 35 percent share of the company.

"This is the future for Big Tobacco," Jacobson said.

Juul and other e-cigarette manufacturers publicly have called for the age to be able to buy vaping products to be raised to 21. Bernstein said her bill focused on restrictions for those under 18 because of issues with the S.C. Constitution.

She said her bill received input from all sides. Juul spokesman Kwong confirmed that the company supported the measure.

Shealy makes a point of saying that she supports tighter rules intended to keep teens from vaping and said the presence of a Juul plant will not affect e-cigarette availability in any way.

"They're not going to be selling the product out the back door of the manufacturing plant," Shealy said. 

Mike Fitts is a veteran South Carolina journalist who covers business from Columbia.

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