WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Wednesday his administration plans to ban non-tobacco-flavored vaping products amid heightened concerns about their health hazards and surging use by teenagers.
The move comes after reports of at least six deaths and more than 400 cases of severe lung illnesses that are believed linked to the electronic cigarette products that feature sweet, fruity and minty flavors as well as conventional tobacco flavors.
“People are dying with vaping,” Trump asserted while meeting with reporters at the White House. “We have to find out the extent of the problem.”
“We can’t allow people to get sick and we can’t have our youth be so affected,” Trump said as first lady Melania Trump sat next to him. Two days ago, Melania Trump tweeted that she was “deeply concerned about the growing epidemic of e-cigarette use in our children.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters that the Food and Drug Administration was drawing up plans for the ban, in which “all flavored e-cigarettes other than tobacco flavor would have to be removed from the market” until each of the products’ producers obtained government approval.
“We simply have to remove these attractive, flavored products from the marketplace until they secure FDA approval,” Azar said. “It will take several weeks for us to put out the final guidance” and enact the ban, he said.
While no specific device or ingredient has been identified in the rash of illnesses, the ban would appear to be a major blow particularly for the market leader, Juul Labs Inc., whose sleek vaping products and assorted flavors have been an enormous hit. Juul did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Juul is so popular that in December, tobacco giant Altria Group Inc. invested nearly $13 billion to obtain a 35% ownership stake in the e-cigarette company. And many users, especially young ones, use the word “Juuling” as a synonym for vaping, regardless of what brand they’re discussing.
As of Friday, there were 450 possible cases of severe pulmonary disease related to vaping across 33 states, according to officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since the first cases were reported in April, there also have been six deaths reported that officials believe might be related to vaping.
The Trump administration also has been studying how much tobacco-flavored vaping helps adult smokers quit traditional cigarettes.
In a tweet Wednesday, Azar said that although the current plan is not to include tobacco-flavored e-cigarette products in the ban, “if data show kids migrating to tobacco-flavored products, we will do what’s necessary to tackle continued youth use of these products.”
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have warned the FDA and CDC in recent weeks that the administration would have to answer for the pulmonary illnesses and deaths related to vaping.
Four lawmakers — three Democrats and one Republican — have called for a ban on the flavored tobacco products, and last week Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., warned acting FDA Commissioner Norman “Ned” Sharpless that he’d seek Sharpless’ resignation if he didn’t act on the issue soon.
But even after Trump’s announcement Wednesday, some were skeptical that the administration would act quickly enough or thoroughly enough.
“The vague allusions to action are more delusion from a failing agency,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “Only bold, decisive action — a long-overdue ban on flavors and deceptive, slick pitches out of Big Tobacco’s playbook — will help end the vaping epidemic.”
Durbin, who has been advocating for years for a vaping ban, said Azar and Sharpless assured him in phone calls this week that the new policy would “basically ban” flavored tobacco in the country.
“We’ve had some pretty tough, intense moments,” Durbin said of his conversations with the Trump administration on the issue. “This is what I’d hoped for. Although it was overdue, I salute them.”
Some Republicans on Capitol Hill expressed skepticism about whether a ban is appropriate, saying adults should be able to use the flavored products.
“If there’s an age limit, why don’t we enforce the age (limit)?” said Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C. “Why don’t we let adults utilize products unless they are deemed to be harmful — and menthol, last time I’ve checked, hadn’t been deemed to be harmful.”
Several health groups welcomed the proposed ban.
Dr. Kyle Yasuda, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents pediatric doctors and others, said in a statement that his group “commends the administration for its bold, decisive action to remove flavored e-cigarettes from the marketplace and to help stop the youth vaping epidemic.”
Nancy Brown, chief executive of the American Heart Association, likewise applauded the move and said in a statement that her group’s research “shows that flavors motivate individuals to start using e-cigarettes and to more often report feeling addicted to e-cigarettes.”
Retailers, meanwhile, braced for the impact.
“It’s going to hurt my business, but what can we do?” said Nick Sani, owner of Downtown Vape in Los Angeles. At least the ban won’t take effect for some weeks, he added, saying that would help him sell his inventory of flavored products and figure out longer-term plans to adjust for the lost business.