President Donald Trump said on Friday his administration would propose a minimum age of 21 for the purchase of e-cigarette products.
The president made the comment during a robust “listening” session at the White House with vaping industry executives, public health advocates, as well as some members of Congress and the Administration.
Trump, who earlier expressed support for a ban on non-tobacco flavored e-cigarettes, appeared to reverse course saying he believes prohibition often leads to less safe black market products.
“If you don’t give it to them, it is going to come here illegally,” he said, warning “they could be selling something on a street corner that could be horrible.”
Regarding an age limit, Trump said, “21 we are going to be doing.”
The session was called amid reports of soaring vaping-related lung illnesses. And with some 5 million U.S. teens now vaping, the e-cigarette issue has taken on more urgency.
At one point, Sen. Mitt Romney, Republican from Utah, who was seated next to Trump, said “most adults are not using flavors,” prompting vaping industry leaders to shout back, “yes they do,” offering adult sales statistics.
Romney responded by pointing to Juul voluntarily ending flavors, but other companies said many or most of sales are of flavored products.
Romney clashed multiple times with vaping advocates. “Utah is a Mormon state, and half the kids in high school are vaping,’ he said at one point. He claimed vaping companies sold a flavor called “unicorn poop” to appeal to children.
Ryan Nivakoff, CEO of Njoy, an e-cigarette company, said teen vaping is “not necessarily a flavor problem.” At another point, Reynolds American chief commercial officer Joe Fragnito, told Trump, “we believe we can market flavors responsibly.”
White House spokesman Judd Deere said the gathering was aimed at giving Trump and administration officials an opportunity to hear from all sides of the issue “as we continue to develop responsible guidelines that protect the public health and the American people.”
Greg Conley, president and founder of the American Vaping Association, said afterwards that the president “seemed to understand that prohibition is not the only option.”
“He cares a lot about youth and keeping them away from these products, but there is the jobs issues and the adult cessation issue that is clearly weighing on his mind,” Conley said.
Conley added, however, that there was no indication of the timing of any broad plan. “He wants ideas.”
Dr. Gary LeRoy, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said Trump “listened intently” to what developed into a “very spirited discussion.” He said the “jury is still out” regarding any Administration decisions or legislative proposals.
LeRoy noted that the sides were far apart on such issues as the value of vaping to wean adults off of cigarettes, but said all sides seemed to agree that vaping “has no place for young adults below the age of 21.”
Among those on the guest list were Juul CEO K.C. Crosthwaite, and two executives of the largest U.S. tobacco companies, Altria CEO Howard Willard and Fragnito of Reynolds’.
Other invitees included Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, and Tony Abboud, executive director of the Vapor Technology Association.
Health leaders who attended included Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids president Matt Myers, American Academy of Pediatrics president-elect Sally Goza and American Lung Association President Harold Wimmer.
The administration has sent mixed signals on how it plans to tackle the problem of young people vaping and the outbreak of lung injuries.
In September, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced plans by the administration to remove all flavored e-cigarettes from store shelves in a widening crackdown.
Last week, however, Mitch Zeller, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products, declined to confirm such a ban in testimony before a Senate committee, referring inquiries instead to the White House.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday 2,290 cases of vaping-related lung injuries in 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition, 47 vaping-related deaths have been confirmed in 25 states and D.C.
The median age of deceased patients was 53 years and ranged from 17 to 75 years. Among those cases where data was available, 68% of patients were men and 38% were between the ages of 18 and 24.
The CDC recently reported vitamin E acetate was associated with the outbreak. The substance is used as a “thickening agent” in e-cigarette products containing THC, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects.
The CDC said vitamin E acetate usually does not cause harm when ingested as a vitamin or is used as skin treatment, but that research suggests if inhaled “it may interfere with normal lung functioning.”
Scott Gottlieb, who served as FDA commissioner until April, told CNBC on Friday White House hesitation on the banning issue was likely due to fears of political blow back.
“I think they were spooked by the politics of this and the push back,” said Gottlieb, a physician and health advocate. He added that he thinks the White House is “legitimately concerned about shutting down these small mom and pop shops and these adult vape stores.”
The Vapor Technology Association, a trade group, says a report prepared for it by economist John Dunham & Associates found a ban on flavor products would eliminate more than 150,000 jobs, force most of the country’s 13,480 independent retail stores to close and cost $8.4 billion in lost sales.
Meanwhile, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee passed a measure this month that would raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21, prohibit all flavored tobacco products and, in a bid to stop mail purchases, direct the FDA to issue a ban on all cigarettes and e-cigarettes sales not sold in person.
Doug Stanglin/USA Today