An interview with Turning Point Brands’ Brittani Cushman

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Brittani Cushman of Turning Point Brands

As anyone working in the embattled tobacco industry well knows, this is a business that routinely faces new regulatory challenges at every level. Staying abreast of the latest developments can be hard, particularly for smaller companies. Fortunately, however, the industry has found ways to band together over the years, often through industry associations that enable the pooling of resources and sharing of legal expertise.

The Vapor Technology Association (VTA) is one such entity, devoted to executing federal and state lobbying and public affairs strategies to protect the vapor industry. VTA draws on the expertise of a board made up of industry veterans who employ their extensive expertise in legal and regulatory matters to serve as champions for the industry. Tobacco Business recently caught up with Brittani Cushman, VTA board president, National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO) board member, and vice president of external affairs for Turning Point Brands, which owns Vapor Beast, as well as a number of OTP brands, including Zig-Zag. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

As anyone working in the embattled tobacco industry well knows, this is a business that routinely faces new regulatory challenges at every level. Staying abreast of the latest developments can be hard, particularly for smaller companies. Fortunately, however, the industry has found ways to band together over the years, often through industry associations that enable the pooling of resources and sharing of legal expertise.

The Vapor Technology Association (VTA) is one such entity, devoted to executing federal and state lobbying and public affairs strategies to protect the vapor industry. VTA draws on the expertise of a board made up of industry veterans who employ their extensive expertise in legal and regulatory matters to serve as champions for the industry. Tobacco Business recently caught up with Brittani Cushman, VTA board president, National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO) board member, and vice president of external affairs for Turning Point Brands, which owns Vapor Beast, as well as a number of OTP brands, including Zig-Zag. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Tobacco Business: Tell us a little about your background and how you got involved with the vapor industry.
Brittani Cushman: My initial four years in the industry, I did [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] (FDA) and state legal compliance as general counsel for a company called Excaliber International. A few years after I had been there, I joined National Tobacco Company, which is known as Turning Point Brands. Turning Point then acquired Vapor Beast and Vapor Shark. That was not their first foray into vapor, but
[it was] their biggest step into that segment of the industry. Today, I focus on all external affairs of the company, so a big component of that is regulatory affairs.

We have a very broad portfolio—we essentially sell just about everything but cigarettes, so we are constantly monitoring all sorts of issues. It happens that vapor tends to be in the crosshairs lately—and some of what affects vapor, such as flavor regulation or tax proposals, affects other tobacco products.

Vapor Shark from Turning Point Brands

What is the extent of the company’s vapor business?
Vapor Beast is primarily a distribution engine both in B2B and B2C, so we sell other manufacturers’ brands, but we also have some proprietary products in the vapor space as well. We’ve had a longstanding distribution agreement with VMR, for example. Vapor Shark is a manufacturer and designs devices as well as liquids, so that acquisition has extended our reach.

 

Why are we seeing such a rash of efforts to regulate locally rather than let the federal government police vapor?
At the state level, there is some interaction with what is happening federally. Some in public health view what is happening at the FDA as negative and feel that the FDA is not taking a strong enough role. States are taking the position that they should act where the FDA is not acting, so in the coming year we will see some of that unfold. At the local level, [anti-tobacco activists] see these as places where they can easily go in and educate legislators and town councils on their side of the issue and make something happen before [the] industry can mobilize. In bigger cities, you tend to get more notice; in small localities, it can be anything from the day before to a week in advance.

Red Mod by Turning Point BrandsDespite what people say about the difficulty of dealing with the FDA, I’ve actually heard that it’s a great deal more challenging to represent the concerns of the industry at the state and local levels. Why is that?
It is very difficult to educate local council people. Ordinances come out of nowhere, with very little notice. At the township level, the industry has been looking at strategies as to how we can better educate [council members] more proactively.

 

What can smaller companies do to help represent the industry in these local and state battlegrounds?
A lot of it is about getting involved early, meeting your local and state legislators, and explaining that it is not just tobacco products that are affected by local ordinances and regulation. Introduce yourself to them and start in building those relationships now, if you haven’t already, because ideally your first meeting with your legislator should not be about something you need from them.

Being active in industry associations is also helpful. Trade associations inform local retailers that an ordinance has been proposed that will affect them and tell them how to contact their local legislators. Organizations like NATO try to stay on top of what’s being introduced at a local level because those efforts unfold quickly, and getting local retailers engaged to educated legislators about the impact action will have on their businesses doesn’t happen overnight.

– Story by Jennifer Gelfand

This story first appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.

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