Vaping Falls in Trump’s Crosshairs

After a year of regulatory pressure from the Food and Drug Administration and weeks of alarming news about Americans hospitalized with a sometimes lethal illness linked to vaporizers, the Trump administration and FDA officials are poised to take unprecedented action on e-cigarettes. In remarks delivered in the Oval Office earlier today, Donald Trump announced that his administration is working on “very strong recommendations” for the vaping market, including a total ban on flavored e-cigarettes.

“We can’t allow people to get sick, and we can’t have our youth be so affected,” Trump said. His concerns echo those of many public-health advocates in the United States, who say that e-cigarettes’ kid-friendly flavors like mango and mint have stoked sharp increases in American adolescent vaping in the past five years. In a 2018 survey by the National Institute of Health, almost 21 percent of U.S. high-school students reported using a nicotine vape in the past 30 days, a rate nearly double that of the same period in 2017.

The popularity of vaping has helped erase the gradual decline in youth tobacco use that the country has seen in the past 20 years, worrying parents and forcing educators to take desperate measures, like removing doors from school restrooms—a popular location for surreptitious use of e-cigarettes.

Public-health advocates point to the popularity of Juul, a company whose products account for more than 70 percent of the American e-cigarette market, as the primary culprit for soaring adolescent-usage rates. In addition to its sweet flavors and small, easily concealed device, the company gained its foothold in the tobacco market with bright advertising campaigns that showed young adults vaping socially—a tactic the company has since been pressured to discontinue over complaints that it targets teenagers.

Azar said new regulations would include all nontobacco flavors, even though conventional cigarettes are still available in menthol. Manufacturers of flavored vape liquid will still be able to apply for FDA approval, a designation that brings with it a much higher level of regulatory oversight and would require the products to be dispensed by medical professionals instead of at gas stations and smoke shops. The new recommendations are expected to be announced formally in the next few weeks, and there will be a 30-day waiting period before they take effect, according to Azar, which is standard for new FDA guidance.

In an emailed statement, Nancy Brown, the CEO of the American Heart Association, praised Trump’s announcement. “We don’t yet know the full impact of e-cigarette use on public health, but we do know that e-cigarette companies have done real harm to a generation of children.”

An outright ban on flavored e-cigarettes is a strong message to American tobacco companies that federal public-health authorities won’t abide attempts to lure minors to their products, but it’s also tantamount to closing the barn door after the horse has gotten out. Analysts estimate that the U.S. e-cigarette market already exceeds $10 billion, and before this announcement, it was expected to grow roughly 25 percent through 2025.

Many of those customers are people who formed nicotine habits without the aid of cigarettes, and what those newfound addictions do to adults and children won’t be clear for years. For former smokers who see vaping as a lifeline to avoid lung and cardiac diseases, meanwhile, their options are about to become much slimmer.

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