Faced with a troubling outbreak of a mysterious vaping-related illness and the skyrocketing use of electronic cigarettes among teens, President Trump announced in September that the Food and Drug Administration would pull flavored electronic-cigarettes from the market, possibly within weeks.
“People are dying,” the president said during a televised news conference with the heads of the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. He promised quick action, and he was right to do so. At that point, six people had died from the new illness, and hundreds more had been hospitalized with severe lung damage. An alarming number of the victims were young adults or teens who said they used vaping devices for both cannabis and nicotine. Since then, 44 people have died and more than 2,000 people have been sickened.
Trump’s plan, reportedly urged by his wife and eldest daughter, was a good one (and a rare smart move on public health policy from an administration better known for dismantling environmental protections). Never mind that it wasn’t a perfect answer to the current crisis. Even then, the vaping illness was suspected to be primarily caused by use of black market vaping devices modified for cannabis or THC and containing vitamin E oil. (Health officials are now pretty sure that‘s what’s causing the illness.)
But a ban on flavored electronic-cigarettes is still good public health policy. Vaping use among minors has grown precipitously in recent years — doubling in just the last two years to about a quarter of all high school seniors, studies show. The trend is primarily driven by an attraction to flavors like candy and fruit. Nearly 80% of teens who vape said they did so because of the flavors. And even if they aren’t using the aftermarket products associated with the vaping illness, the high levels of nicotine in electronic cigarettes hook users quickly, and nicotine use presents its own health risks.
There was also solid precedent for the move Trump proposed. In 2009, the FDA prohibited the makers of traditional cigarettes from using flavors other than menthol because of their appeal to kids. Public health officials say the ban on flavors was a main factor in teens losing interest in cigarette smoking, which fell to an all-time low in 2018.
It seemed possible that Trump’s ban would go into effect. Vaping isn’t the political third rail that guns are, and it’s not as complicated, controversial or fraught as, say, immigration or Middle East policy. Who, other than the companies that profit from hooking people on this addictive but nonessential product, could find fault with a move to protect the nation’s children from potential harm?
We should have known better.
According to the Washington Post, the FDA was set to announce on Nov. 5 that it would order flavored electronic cigarettes to be banned for sale within 30 days. But the day before the announcement, reports said, Trump decided not to sign the “decision memo” out of concern that it might lead to job losses that could be used against him during his reelection campaign.
This is just another example of Trump’s tendency to say one thing and then do another. Such was the case when Trump said he would support sensible gun control (such as closing loopholes on background checks) after a particularly bad run of mass shootings, but then flip-flopped after strong words from the National Rifle Assn. Or when the president said his administration would stop separating families at the border and continued to do it anyway. Or when he abandoned a highly touted proposal to reduce drug prices by blocking a practice that benefits drug-buying insurance middlemen. We could do this all day.
It seems the country is led by a man so concerned with hanging on to his job that he would throw over an entire generation of children in the process.
It’s not too late for Trump to come to his senses and sign the order that would direct the FDA to ban electronic cigarette flavors immediately — before he could change his mind again. But we won’t hold our breath.