After weeks of mixed signals from President Donald Trump about his administration’s plans to ban flavored vaping products, the White House convened a meeting Friday between proponents and opponents of the electronic cigarette industry.
In a spirited discussion that the White House billed as a “listening session,” Trump heard from anti-vaping stakeholders who pleaded with him to stick to his September commitment to ban all flavors in e-cigarettes, including menthol.
Anti-vaping activists insist that youth e-cigarette usage is an epidemic fueled largely by kid-friendly flavors such as mango and cotton candy.
“We have stories of young people who say, ‘I started because this is cool and literally within days I lost control,’ ” Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said. “Kids sleep with these products, because they need to wake up [to vape] in the middle of the night.”
“Parents are in pain and we need you,” Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, said to Trump. She urged the administration to ban all flavors, implement an age limit of 21 and ban advertising, as per Trump’s “original solution.”
In September, the administration announced it would ban the sale of most flavors of e-cigarette devices after dozens of deaths and many more mysterious deaths linked to vaping were reported. But Trump has since reversed course, amid pressure from interest groups and lawmakers.
The White House meeting was attended by the industry’s biggest players, including K.C. Crosthwaite, chief executive officer of JUUL Labs, Ryan Nivakoff, chief executive officer of NJOY, and Howard Willard, chief executive officer of Altria Group.
During the meeting, proponents of the industry pushed back and said that they can “market flavors responsibly.”
The suggestion was dismissed by Senator Mitt Romney from Utah. Last month, Romney introduced a bill that would ban flavored e-cigarettes and apply cigarette taxes to the devices, among other measures aimed at curbing teen vaping.
“Sixty-six percent of the kids addicted to these products are saying they didn’t even know it had nicotine in it, they thought it was just a candy-type product,” Romney said, blaming the industry for enticing children with flavors such as cotton candy and “unicorn poop.”
Health advocates weighed in as well.
“The vast majority of young people who vape use flavored products, and most say they wouldn’t vape if the products didn’t come in flavors,” Linda Richter, director of policy research at the New York-based Center on Addiction, told VOA. “Therefore, removal of all flavored vaping products from the market, including mint and menthol, which are appealing to kids, would considerably help to deter and reduce youth vaping.”
While anti-vaping activists insist all flavors must be banned, Trump asked participants about the advantage of keeping menthol as the only flavor allowed. Industry proponents say that a large number of smokers are menthol smokers and menthol-flavored e-cigarettes help smokers migrate to a lower-risk product.
On several occasions, Trump brought up the effects of prohibition on addictive substances.
“With the alcohol, you look at cigarettes, you look at all. If you don’t give it to them, it’s going to come here illegally,” he said. “Instead of having a flavor that’s at least safe, they’re going to be having a flavor that’s poison.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday reported that 47 deaths and more than 2,000 illnesses had been linked to vaping.
Trump indicated his administration will soon make a decision on an age limit.
“Age is a big factor. We have to come up with our number at some point,” he said.
The discussion was heated at times, with Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, accusing anti-vaping activists in the room of receiving funding from Michael Bloomberg, a possible Trump political opponent.
“These groups have 160 million reasons from Michael Bloomberg to not come to the table and compromise,” Conley said.
In September, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched a $160 million initiative to end youth e-cigarette use.
The e-cigarette industry also tried to play up the job creation angle by claiming that 151,000 jobs will be in jeopardy and 13,000 small businesses will close if Trump implements the flavor ban.
Romney rejected the statistics and said he puts “the kids first” over industry employees.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said the gathering was aimed at giving Trump and administration officials “an opportunity to hear from a large group, representing all sides, as we continue to develop responsible guidelines that protect the public health and the American people.”
Trump ended the hourlong discussion by saying, “We want to take care of our kids.”