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Politics

Trump plans to ban flavored e-cigarettes

President Trump and Health Secretary Alex Azar
President Trump listens as Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar talks at the White House on Wednesday about a plan to ban most flavored e-cigarettes.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Trump said Wednesday that his administration plans to ban vaping products with sweet and fruity flavors amid heightened concerns about electronic cigarettes’ health hazards and surging use by teenagers.

The move comes after reports of at least six deaths and more than 450 cases of severe lung illnesses that are believed to be linked to e-cigarette use — although there is no indication flavoring was the cause.

“People are dying with vaping,” Trump asserted while meeting with reporters at the White House. “We have to find out the extent of the problem.

“We can’t allow people to get sick and we can’t have our youth be so affected,” Trump said as First Lady Melania Trump sat next to him. Two days ago, Melania Trump tweeted that she was “deeply concerned about the growing epidemic of e-cigarette use in our children.”

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Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters Wednesday that the Food and Drug Administration was drawing up plans for the ban, in which “all flavored e-cigarettes other than tobacco flavor would have to be removed from the market” until each of the products’ producers obtained government approval.

“We simply have to remove these attractive, flavored products from the marketplace until they secure FDA approval,” Azar said. “It will take several weeks for us to put out the final guidance” and enact the ban, he said.

While no specific device or ingredient has been identified in the rash of illnesses, the ban would appear to be a major blow particularly for the market leader, Juul Labs Inc., whose sleek vaping products and assorted flavors have been an enormous hit.

The percentage of U.S. high school seniors who vape nicotine products nearly doubled to 21% last year, according to a study released in December.

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In a short statement, Juul said “we strongly agree with the need for aggressive category-wide action on flavored products. We will fully comply with the final FDA policy when effective.”

Juul is so popular that in December, tobacco giant Altria Group Inc. invested nearly $13 billion to obtain a 35% ownership stake in the e-cigarette company. And many users, especially young ones, use the word “Juuling” as a synonym for vaping, regardless of what brand they’re discussing.

As of Friday, there were more than 450 cases of severe pulmonary disease associated with vaping across 33 states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many but not all patients reported using vape liquid containing cannabinoids, the CDC said.

Since the first cases were reported in April, there also have been six deaths reported, including one in Los Angeles County, that officials believe might be related to vaping.

While the exact cause of the illnesses is still being investigated, Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s public health director, told a news conference last week that her agency was “issuing a warning to all residents about the use of these devices as potentially harmful to proper lung function. Stop vaping now.”

The Trump administration also has been studying how much tobacco-flavored vaping helps adult smokers quit traditional cigarettes.

In a tweet Wednesday, Azar said that although the current plan is not to include tobacco-flavored e-cigarette products in the ban, “if data show kids migrating to tobacco-flavored products, we will do what’s necessary to tackle continued youth use of these products.”

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Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have warned the FDA and CDC in recent weeks that the administration would have to answer for the pulmonary illnesses and deaths related to vaping.

Four lawmakers — three Democrats and one Republican — have called for a ban on the flavored tobacco products, and last week, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) warned acting FDA Commissioner Norman “Ned” Sharpless that he’d seek Sharpless’ resignation if he didn’t act on the issue soon.

But even after Trump’s announcement Wednesday, some were skeptical that the administration would act quickly enough or thoroughly enough.

“The vague allusions to action are more delusion from a failing agency,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “Only bold, decisive action — a long-overdue ban on flavors and deceptive, slick pitches out of Big Tobacco’s playbook — will help end the vaping epidemic.”

Durbin, who has been advocating for years for a vaping ban, said Azar and Sharpless assured him in phone calls this week that the new policy would “basically ban” flavored tobacco in the country.

“We’ve had some pretty tough, intense moments,” Durbin said of his conversations with the Trump administration on the issue. “This is what I’d hoped for. Although it was overdue, I salute them.”

Some Republicans on Capitol Hill expressed skepticism about whether a ban is appropriate, saying adults should be able to use the flavored products.

“If there’s an age limit, why don’t we enforce the age [limit]?” said Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.). “Why don’t we let adults utilize products unless they are deemed to be harmful — and menthol, last time I’ve checked, hadn’t been deemed to be harmful.”

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Several health groups welcomed the proposed ban.

Dr. Kyle Yasuda, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents pediatric doctors and others, said in a statement that his group “commends the administration for its bold, decisive action to remove flavored e-cigarettes from the marketplace and to help stop the youth vaping epidemic.”

Nancy Brown, chief executive of the American Heart Assn., likewise applauded the move and said in a statement that her group’s research “shows that flavors motivate individuals to start using e-cigarettes and to more often report feeling addicted to e-cigarettes.”

Retailers, meanwhile, braced for the fallout from the proposed ban.

“It’s going to hurt my business, but what can we do?” said Nick Sani, owner of Downtown Vape in Los Angeles. At least the ban won’t take effect for some weeks, he added, saying that would help him sell his inventory of flavored products and figure out longer-term plans to adjust for the lost business.

The Vapor Technology Assn., an industry trade group, blasted the ban as “a public health travesty” because, it contends, “more than 10 million adults will be forced to choose between smoking again … or finding what they want and need on the black market.”

The group also predicted that this “type of government overreach” would “surely shut down more than 10,000 American small businesses,” and it argued that there “has been no indication that industry standard nicotine-containing vapor products are to blame for recent cases of lung illness.”

Juul stopped selling its fruit- and dessert-flavored nicotine pods through retailers last November, moving the sales to its website, in an effort to distance itself from underage users. The San Francisco company has been under heavy scrutiny by federal and state authorities. It maintains that its products are intended for adult cigarette smokers and that it has never marketed its products to young people.

The company also has supported efforts in certain states to raise the age for buying e-cigarettes to 21. “We have no higher priority than combating youth use,” Juul said last month.

Juul faces regulatory challenges on multiple fronts. On Monday, the Federal Trade Commission accused Juul of illegally pitching its products as a safer alternative to smoking. The agency told Juul to turn over more documents about its marketing, educational programs and nicotine formula.


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