Politics, Industry Backlash Stall White House Ban On Flavored Vaping Products

Nov 19, 2019
Originally published on November 19, 2019 6:05 am

The Trump administration's plan to ban most flavored vaping products has stalled out, at least for the moment.

Two months ago, President Trump announced he was pursuing the new policy to put a dent in the youth vaping epidemic. The plan was supposed to have been unveiled in a matter of weeks.

But industry pushback and the politics of vaping appear to have derailed that process.

On Sept. 11, when the president announced that he was endorsing a Food and Drug Administration proposal to ban those products, he acknowledged there were economic consequences.

"Vaping has become a very big business as I understand it. A giant business in a very short period of time," he told reporters at the White House. "But we can't allow people to get sick and we can't have our youth to be so affected."

The policy proposal hit just as health officials were investigating lung injuries and deaths among people who vaped. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now say that's primarily from vaping dubious marijuana products.

But Paul Billings, national senior vice president of public policy at the American Lung Association, says the organization was also focused on the role that flavored e-cigarettes played in teen nicotine addiction.

Mint, menthol, fruit and candy flavors would all be banned under the original proposal, leaving only tobacco-flavored vaping products. Those would appeal less to teens, though most adults also prefer non-tobacco flavors.

"We were very optimistic, encouraged when the president announced he wanted to clear the markets of all flavored e-cigarettes," Billings says, noting that these attractive flavors "play such an important role in addicting millions of kids to these products."

However, Billings' optimism started to fade in the following weeks when the policy did not appear as promised. "It stretched into months," Billings says.

The FDA sent its proposal to the Office of Management and Budget for review. It cleared that process on Nov. 4. "And then everything stopped on Nov. 5," Billings says.

The Washington Post reports that is when the political staffers advised Trump not to sign off on the new rules.

Paul Blair, director of strategic initiatives at the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, was part of the push against the new rules. "Look, there are legitimate concerns about teens experimenting with these products," he says, "but running toward the 1920s in terms of prohibition is a vote-losing issue."

That message hit the airwaves of Fox News, which ran commercials produced by the Vapor Technology Association that portrayed e-cigarette users who said they wouldn't vote for a president who banned vaping products.

Advocates assert that a vaping flavor ban could tilt the election against Trump in key swing states. A few years ago, Blair's organization polled people who vape in states such as Michigan, concluding that 3 out of 4 of them were single-issue voters — and that the issue that energized them was access to vaping products.

Some also argue that getting rid of flavored vaping products could drive people who switched to e-cigarettes back to smoking cigarettes, which are the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

On top of that, Blair says the industry itself provides 150,000 jobs through vape shops, manufacturers and related services.

"It would be a pretty significant hit in an election year for a guy that's focused on deregulation, spurring economic growth and not killing jobs," Blair says.

Big Tobacco is also part of this story, says the American Lung Association's Billings.

"The largest tobacco companies in the world, like Altria and [R.J.] Reynolds, are major players in the e-cigarette business, along with these vape shops," he says.

And those forces appear to have won out over the public health advocates, at least at the federal level, "so we fully expect — irrespective of what the administration does or does not do — that states and localities will continue to move forward," Billings says.

A White House spokesman says the new rules haven't been killed, but it's not clear what, if anything, will survive this process.

You can contact NPR science correspondent Richard Harris at rharris@npr.org.

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