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House panel approves sweeping vaping ban as Trump effort stalls

A House panel on Tuesday advanced a sweeping ban on flavored tobacco — including vaping products — as Democrats condemned President Donald Trump’s decision to stall his plans for muscular restrictions amid lobbying from political allies and the vape industry.

The bill approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee is far more aggressive than the ban Trump proposed two months ago to combat surging public health crises tied to vaping. The Democrats’ measure, approved on a 28-24 vote mostly along party lines, would ban all flavored tobacco products, raise the purchasing age to 21 nationwide, and ban online sales in a bid to curb teen tobacco use, particularly of vaping products.

The legislation has gained momentum in the House as federal research showed teen vaping rates continuing to soar and as a vaping-linked lung disease swept across the country. Democrats also said the bill took on new importance in light of Trump’s refusal to move forward on the flavor ban he promised in September. That proposal is now in limbo as he reportedly weighs whether it would damage his election prospects.

“The president’s retreat on his promise” to prohibit flavored tobacco makes congressional action critical, said panel Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who sponsored the bill. He added that the holdup shows that Trump “cares more about pleasing special interests than advancing public health.”

The House is likely to pass the bill, but it’s expected to die in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has introduced an anti-tobacco measure that would raise the purchasing age to 21 nationwide but not otherwise restrict sales.

But it could become a vehicle for an e-cigarette flavor ban if the president ultimately backtracks on his proposed ban.

Two Republicans joined Democrats to vote for the bill, while Reps. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and Donald McEachin (D-Va.) broke with their party to vote against the measure, citing concerns over menthol being included in the ban.

Republicans critics of the measure warned that it wouldn’t curb vaping illnesses or teen e-cigarette use but could hurt adult smokers looking for better options. And they argued that the real culprit is marijuana vapes, which have primarily been linked to the vaping-related lung disease outbreak. A Republican-backed amendment to make marijuana vapes subject to FDA regulation failed after Pallone urged a vote against the provision, saying it’s not the focus of the legislation.

The menthol ban caused fissures among Democrats. Clarke urged lawmakers to exempt menthol products because banning them could have unintended consequences for “already over-policed” black communities that disproportionately buy menthol tobacco products and do not have the smoking cessation options that other communities do.

Butterfield backed her, calling a menthol ban “unfair and discriminatory.”

But other Democrats disagreed. Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush said “menthol truly is the ultimate candy flavor” and that an exception “will allow many African American teenagers to form lifelong nicotine addictions.”

Rep. Anna Eshoo, chair of the health subcommittee, stressed that the bill targets industry players that sell illicit products rather than consumers.

White House aides in recent weeks have indicated that the administration could exempt menthol from Trump’s promised ban, and might even carve out age-restricted vape shops — which advocates say account for thousands of small business jobs across the country.

Such exemptions would be a huge win for some of Trump’s conservative allies, who warned a more sweeping ban on flavored vaping products would alienate the president’s base and hurt his reelection effort. However, a weakened plan is likely to anger public health groups and could complicate the Senate’s review of Trump’s nominee to lead the FDA.

Democrats were swift to pounce on the White House’s approach to its proposed ban.

The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, blasted the president on the chamber floor today. “I’m hoping that the president cares more about children than he does about the lobbying pressure from ‘Big Tobacco’ and ‘Big Vape companies,'” he said.

The Senate’s own health panel in June advanced a bill that included McConnell’s provision to raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21. But many Republicans have balked at more extensive measures like menthol flavor bans, arguing it goes too far and would not solve the youth vaping epidemic or vaping-linked lung disease.

Sarah Owermohle/Politico