In September, the Trump administration committed to banning flavored e-cigarettes, like mint and menthol, in order to temper the rapid increase of young people using vaping products. Alex Azar, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, said he would prepare a new rule within thirty days. “We can’t allow people to get sick,” President Donald Trump said. “And we can’t have our youth be so affected.”
But the rule never came.
According to the Washington Post, the night before the sign-off on the new regulation, the president changed his mind because of worries that regulating the industry may hurt his re-election prospects.
With the president reversing course, what seemed like it might initially be a fairly smooth bipartisan process has collapsed, as Minnesota members are now continuing to look for ways to regulate vaping products despite the lack of commitment from the president.
The concern with vaping products is two-fold: there has been a rapid increase in the number of young people using the products and there have been thousands of reported cases of vaping related illnesses and several deaths.
Data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey shows that more than a quarter of high school students have used e-cigarettes in the past thirty days. Most say they used some type of flavoring.
“My anxiety and worry around vaping is reflected by this startling data: In 2019, one in four eleventh-graders in Minnesota reported using an e-cigarette in the last 30 days. That’s a 54 percent increase from 2016,” said Sen. Tina Smith. “And when I ask teachers in the state about what keeps them up at night, they point to two things: their growing concern about the mental health of their students and the exponential rise in teen vaping.”
As of November 20, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 2,290 injuries and 47 deaths have been reported as a result of using e-cigarette or vaping products.
Caucus to End Youth Vaping
Even prior to the Trump administration’s brief flirtation with addressing the issue, several members of the Minnesota delegation have been pushing for solutions.
In early September, Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar authored a letter to the CDC and Food and Drug Administration asking for a quicker pace in their study of vaping related illnesses and deaths.
“We appreciate that the CDC has cautioned the public against the use of e-cigarette products” while the investigation into these illnesses remains ongoing — but we remain concerned that not enough is being done to appropriately regulate these products and ensure their safety for public use,” they wrote. “As Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm has said, ‘One death from this outbreak is one death too many.’”
Angie Craig of Minnesota’s Second District is a member of the Caucus to End Youth Vaping, a bipartisan coalition of House members formed in September to curb youth e-cigarette use.
Craig is also a cosponsor of the Stop Vaping Ads Act, a bill that would ban all radio and television ads for vaping products; The SAFE Kids Act of 2019, a bill that would restrict the flavoring in e-cigarette products, the Tobacco to 21 Act, a bill that would raise the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 years of age; and the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2019, a comprehensive bill that would, among several changes, raise the tobacco purchase age to 21, require the FDA to include graphic health warnings on cigarette packages, and prohibit characterizing flavors of tobacco products.
“For me, this issue is not about politics, it’s personal. As a mother of four boys, one still in high school, I’ve seen first-hand how predatory advertising and the marketing of flavored products is getting the next generation of Americans addicted to nicotine,” said Craig.
“We cannot afford this to get held up by partisanship – our kids are getting sick.”
Finalizing the rule
But with the Trump administration backing off from their initial promise to issue FDA regulations, moving forward is more difficult. The lack of support from the president means what he will and will not sign, when it comes to legislative solutions, is unclear. In the Senate, Republican Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell seems to favors only one solution at present: raising the purchase age for tobacco products to 21.
Craig says that alone isn’t good enough. “Raising the nicotine purchase age is not enough to tackle the youth vaping epidemic,” she said. “Research has shown that three key drivers of the rise in youth vaping are the sale of flavored products, vaping companies targeting their advertising to teens, and how easy it is to buy vapes and cartridges online.”
In a meeting with industry leaders on Friday, it seemed even more clear that the president has fully reversed course from his position in September.
“If you don’t give it to them, it is going to come here illegally,” Trump said of vaping products. “They could be selling something on a street corner that could be horrible … They are going to have a flavor that is poison.”
The White House said the policy to regulate vaping products was delayed, but not abandoned. “The policymaking process is not stalled — it continues to move forward,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere said in a statement.
“The president’s decision not to move forward on action to ban flavored e-cigarettes is yet another example of how his Administration prioritizes corporate interests over people,” said Klobuchar. “Vaporizers and other e-cigarette products have flooded the market, and youth e-cigarette use has exploded, yet we currently know very little about the long-term health effects from exposure to the chemicals and nicotine common in most e-cigarettes.”
With or without the White House, Minnesotans in Congress intend to find a way to move forward. Last week, at a confirmation hearing for Trump’s nominee to be Commissioner of Food and Drugs, Smith wanted to know if the nominee, Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, would be willing to go through with the regulation proposed in September, no matter the “political influence.”
“Would you agree that as the head of the FDA, that you would have the authority, to advance that rule? To finalize that rule?” Smith asked.
“Senator, I’m always hesitant to opine on the law and regulation without having all the facts,” Hahn said with a smile.
Smith cut him off at the end of his sentence. “I’m pretty sure you’d have the authority,” she said, while Hahn chuckled. “But we can check that.”