- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2019

President Trump wants to raise the age for purchasing e-cigarettes, but he’s walking a tightrope on flavored vapes between advocates who say fruity flavors hook kids and industry forces who say flavors support “mom and pop” shops and help adult smokers quit.

Ever the showman, Mr. Trump stuck all the players in one room Friday at the White House and let them duke it out in front of the cameras.

“It’s the flavors that have hooked the kids and that kept the kids from perceiving harm in these products, and the presence of nicotine,” said Meredith Berkman, co-founder of Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes. “Kids are in pain, and we need you to help us.”

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She wants Mr. Trump to stick to his guns and push for the outright flavor ban he teased in September. Yet conservatives who support Mr. Trump say a ban would amount to federal regulation run amok, so a nuanced approach is in order.

Seated at a long table, the president said “we are going to be” raising the age threshold from 18 to 21, but a strict ban on flavored e-cigs might drive sales underground.

“If you don’t give it to them, it’s going to come here illegally, OK?” he said. “Instead of Reynolds or Juul or, you know, legitimate companies, good companies making something that’s safe, they’re going to be selling stuff on a street corner that could be horrible. That’s the one problem I can’t seem to forget.”

The only flavor vapers would get is “poison,” Mr. Trump said.

The debate was unusual, testy and freewheeling — in other words, classic Trump.

“Go ahead. Tell me about lungs. Come on, what do you think?” Mr. Trump said at one point to Gary Reedy, CEO of the American Cancer Society.

Seated beside the president, Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, said “most adults are not using flavors,” prompting an outcry from industry reps.

“You’re going to ask people that are using flavors today to go back to using the [tobacco] flavor of the product that almost killed them,” said Christopher Butler, executive director of the Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group that holds sway with the Trump administration.

“We believe we can market flavors responsibly, Mr. President,” added Joseph Fragnito, president of Reynolds American Inc.

Industry leaders said they fear an “oligopoly” of companies that are able to survive a flavor ban, leaving the rest of the industry to crumble.

They also said many of the reported deaths from vaping involve cannabis-related products or counterfeit vapes.

Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, suggested some of the anti-vaping advocates in the room were under the financial thumb of former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has announced his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Mr. Romney appeared unmoved by industry entreaties, saying at one point: “Utah is a Mormon state, and half the kids in high school are vaping.”

All sides appeared to agree that the status quo isn’t working.

The administration is alarmed by an epidemic of e-cigarette use among teens. Seeing a new generation of Americans become addicted to nicotine is an acceptable tradeoff for declining smoking rates among adults, officials have said, and mysterious illnesses linked to vaping have added a sense of urgency.

Mr. Trump seemed geared to take action during a Sept. 11 appearance in the Oval Office with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II, when the administration announced a push to ban all flavored e-cigarettes except tobacco-flavored ones.

Free-market conservatives revolted, citing government overreach and potential harm to adult smokers seeking a healthier alternative.

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who pushed for a crackdown on e-cigarettes, told CNBC on Friday that even if Mr. Trump got “spooked,” there may be a path forward. Officials might be able to carve adult-only vape shops out of any ban while cracking down on products sold to youth at convenience and gas stores.

“You don’t want to just sweep the market of everything,” Dr. Gottlieb said. “You want to leave something for the adults.”

Sen. Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat, recently said Mr. Trump will be putting millions of children at risk if he “flip flops” on his earlier bid to ban flavored e-cigs.

The White House said Mr. Trump’s interest in reviving the debate shouldn’t be viewed as a retreat.

“This diverse group expressed strong viewpoints, including removing flavored nicotine products that appeal to youth, ensuring adults maintain access to the nicotine flavors they want, increasing age restrictions, protecting small businesses, federalism, the need for stricter enforcement and advertising limitations, education, and much more,” deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere said. “All in attendance agreed that the growing trend of e-cigarette addiction among American middle and high school youth is an urgent and important national issue. The president appreciated the candid conversation.”

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