Trump administration’s compromise vape ban provokes public health outcry
Angry public health groups on Wednesday predicted President Trump’s scaled-back plan to limit flavored e-cigarettes will fall far short of its goal of stopping a surge in youth vaping, arguing that the imminent policy is an election-year capitulation to industry interests.
The administration plans to announce this week that it will ban an array of flavored e-cigarette pods — closed cartridges that contain vaping liquids and have been embraced by teens. But it will spare e-liquids for “open tank” products that typically are sold by vape shops and are more commonly used by adults, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to describe internal deliberations.
The targeted flavors will include fruity and minty cartridges but not menthol — a significant retreat from an earlier proposal — and tobacco ones. The official said the outcome was a compromise between administration officials pushing a comprehensive ban promised by Trump in September and others worried about the political fallout stemming from potential job losses in thousands of vape shops across the country. That concern was underscored by comments the president made on New Year’s Eve about safeguarding the industry.
Harold Wimmer, president and chief executive of the American Lung Association, said in a statement Wednesday that the White House plan “will only compromise the health of our nation’s children” and that it was “disturbing to see the results of industry lobbying to undermine public health protections.”
His comments echoed the views of several public health groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, Truth Initiative and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. All argue that teens addicted to the nicotine in e-cigs will quickly switch to menthol- or tobacco-flavored pods if those are the only ones being sold.
“We needed major surgery and instead what we got is a bad Band-Aid,” said Robin Koval, chief executive and president of Truth Initiative.
Vaping and e-cigarette products are displayed in a store in New York City. (Stephanie Keith/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who has argued for months that cartridge-based products should be removed from the market because of their appeal to teens, also warned that the administration’s decision would have only “a limited impact.” He said all pod-based products — including menthol and tobacco flavors — should be blocked and only the open-tank products left on the market for adult users.
Greg Conley, president of the advocacy group American Vaping Association, vigorously disputed the criticisms.
“The products being impacted appear to be significant contributors to the recent rise in teen usage,” he said. “To say this is not going to do anything is pure political rhetoric.”
The company Juul, which dominates the e-cigarette market and has been blamed for igniting the youth-vaping rise, already has stopped selling e-cigarette pods except for menthol- and tobacco-flavored ones. It has denied marketing to youth.
Other brands, including NJOY and Vuse, have continued to offer an array of flavored pods.
Trump had pledged tough action in September, suggesting it was crucial to keep all flavored products out of children’s hands. Some administration officials feel that a recent federal law increasing the minimum age for buying tobacco products to 21 now gives them cover to do less.
Asked about the new vaping policy on New Year’s Eve at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Trump told reporters that “we have to protect our families. At the same time, it’s a big industry. We want to protect the industry.”
The next battle in the vaping controversy is already underway; manufacturers face a court-ordered May deadline for submitting product applications to the FDA. Companies that don’t submit applications could have their products forced off the market. But those removed from the market in coming months under the ban could return if their applications are approved.
The FDA must conclude that the products, which so far have been lightly regulated, provide a net public health benefit.
The president seemed to reference this next stage in his remarks Tuesday night. “Hopefully, if everything is safe, they’re going to be going very quickly back onto the market,” he said.
Vaping interests hope to delay the deadline or reduce what they describe as onerous and costly application requirements. They argue that small companies don’t have the financial resources to complete the process and that many will be shut down if there isn’t relief.
The hope is to persuade federal officials to streamline the application process, said Paul Blair, director of strategic initiatives at the conservative Americans for Tax Reform.
Since the moment Trump pledged a vaping ban, vape shops and their allies have portrayed a crackdown as an existential threat to small businesses — one that could affect the election. Blair presented key White House advisers with estimates about the impact of vapers’ anger in critical battleground states such as Michigan. Vaping interests staged protests this fall in Washington and in cities where Trump was speaking, invoking a “We Vape, We Vote” slogan.
In November, the night before the administration was set to announce a broad flavor ban, Trump balked. Since then, administration officials have been holding weekly meetings to come up with a policy solution that would split the difference between the political concerns of Brad Parscale, the president’s campaign manager, and staffers focused on public health.
Led by White House Domestic Policy Council Director Joe Grogan, the meetings were frequently attended by principals in the administration, including senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway.
Several weeks ago, Trump held a meeting with vaping advocates, public health groups and tobacco executives to try to find common ground. Conley, who attended the roundtable representing the American Vaping Association, said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asked a vaping group to estimate the percentage of members’ sales that were closed-pod systems vs. open-tank e-liquids. Conley said Azar wanted to know what the impact would be of a ban on the first but not the second.
The Department of Health and Human Services and the FDA declined to comment Wednesday. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Just before Trump left to spend Christmas at Mar-a-Lago, he signed off on the new plan. Now White House staffers would like to get the issue behind them. While first lady Melania Trump has expressed concerns about teen vaping, it’s “not really an issue that the president is deeply plugged in on,” one administration official said.