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The Politics of Vape Policy

Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 5, 2020

Three months after Donald Trump said it was imperative to bar flavored e-cigarettes aimed at recruiting teens as smokers, we have an announced policy that practically offers more smoke than action.

Congress did raise the minimum legal age for purchase of e-cigarettes to 21, but the issue is something we should consider in evaluating an administration that too often takes credit without doing the work.

The announced policy was a compromise between administration officials pushing for the comprehensive ban promised over health concerns and those worried about political fallout from threats of job losses and business reversals in vape shops across the country.

Indeed, in announcing the policy this week that limits only flavored closed-canister e-cigarettes, Trump said “We have to protect our families. At the same time, it’s a big industry. We want to protect the industry. . . Hopefully, if everything is safe, they’re going to be going very quickly back onto the market.”

So, once again, we have an administration that says it cares about health of young people shading the action as to avoid serious enforcement. It is another mini-manifestation of the discussion of health care policy writ large: Promise health nirvana, but provide little that does so.

A good number of states and cities, including New York and California, have ordered temporary bans on all vape sales, awaiting a federal policy.


The announced policy blocks the closed canisters by which companies offer fruity or minty flavors like bubble gum and strawberry. It does not block menthol, the largest seller, or tobacco flavor. It does not bar “open tank,” refillable e-cigarettes that can be filled with whatever liquid is wanted. Some 64% of high school vapers reported using those flavors, according to year’s National Youth Tobacco Survey

Juul, the biggest of the vape companies, already has removed flavored canisters from the market and said it will not market to teens, meaning that the announcement will have exactly zero effect. Other brands, including NJOY and Vuse, have continued to offer an array of flavored pods.

Still, from news reports, public health groups were quick to note that this was ill-considered policy that falls short of any health goal and that caves to industry.

Harold Wimmer, president and chief executive of the American Lung Association, told The Washington Postthat the White House plan “will only compromise the health of our nation’s children” and that it was “disturbing to see the results of industry lobbying to undermine public health protections.” Others, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, Truth Initiative and the Campaign for ­Tobacco-Free Kids, warned that teens addicted to the nicotine in e-cigarettes will quickly switch to ­menthol- or tobacco-flavored pods if those are the only ones being sold.

What prompted all of this were significantly rising teen use of e-cigs and a rising number of hospitalizations and deaths of teens and adults linked with vaping. More than 50 have been killed and more than 2,500 sickened by the illnesses, which have mostly been linked to marijuana vapes from the black market.

Faced with concern about teen smoking, Trump, prompted by wife, Melania, as well as health officials, promised comprehensive actions.

Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, dissented. “The products being impacted appear to be significant contributors to the recent rise in teen usage,” he said. “To say this is not going to do anything is pure political rhetoric.”

Some administration officials have told reporters that feel that a recent federal law increasing the minimum purchase age allows for a policy that covers less than originally promised.


Vaping companies face a court-ordered deadline in May to submit product applications to the FDA, which must decide that those products meet a standard of offering a net public health benefit. These announced policies seem to set a pretty low bar. In any case, vaping companies are seeking to delay the deadlines or reduce regulations for financial reasons. Vape shops have helped organize a lobbying campaign around protections for small businesses and jobs.

Several weeks ago, Trump held a meeting with vaping advocates, public health groups and tobacco executives to try to find common ground. According to, the issue pitted Trump’s top health advisers at odds with his re-election campaign and free-market outside groups. Campaign manager Brad Parscale urged the president to back off a sweeping ban over concerns it could trigger backlash among his own supporters.

We shouldn’t be surprised that campaign officials have a significant vote in setting public policy — even about health.

Maybe we should be aiming pleas for humanitarian, environmental and health needs to the campaign manager.


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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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