Sitting in the Oval Office with Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, and Dr. Ned Sharpless, the acting Food and Drug Administration commissioner, President Donald Trump acknowledged that there was a vaping problem, and said, “We’re going to have to do something about it.”
Azar said that the FDA would outline a plan within the coming weeks for removing most flavored e-cigarettes that are not tobacco products from the market.
The move follows increasing pressure by lawmakers, parents and educators, who have been overwhelmed by the popularity of vaping among youths, and felt powerless to keep e-cigarettes out of their schools.
The latest proposal may include a ban on menthol and mint flavored e-cigarettes, which have been the among the most popular flavors for the industry. Research has shown that these flavors are very appealing to youths and to nonsmokers, although some vaping advocates note that they hold great appeal for smokers who want to use e-cigarettes to quit.
Melania Trump also attended the White House meeting. “She’s got a son,” the president said of their teenage child, Barron. “She feels very strongly about it,” he said of the first lady’s interest in the vaping issue.
Just this week, Michigan became the first state to prohibit the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also called for a ban, and Massachusetts and California are considering similar measures. San Francisco approved an e-cigarette ban earlier this year, which Juul Labs, the dominant seller in the United States, is lobbying to reverse through a ballot initiative this November.
Last week, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a longtime opponent of tobacco and e-cigarettes, warned Sharpless that if the FDA failed to remove e-cigarette flavors from the market, he would call for the commissioner’s resignation. After Kansas reported a sixth vaping-related death on Tuesday, Durbin again slammed the FDA for failing to take decisive action to protect the public from e-cigarettes.
Pressure also began to mount as Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, decided to step in by announcing a $160 million push to ban flavored e-cigarettes. Long an opponent of traditional smoking, the former mayor said his organization, Bloomberg Philanthropies, would seek prohibitions of flavored e-cigarettes in at least 20 cities and states.
In New York, Cuomo also directed state health officials to subpoena companies that market or sell so-called thickening agents, which are sometimes added to illicit vaping products. A state laboratory, which detected the agents in vaping products collected from New York’s patients, found that they were nearly pure vitamin E acetate oil, which officials have said is a potential cause of some of the illnesses.
Hospitals and health officials in nearly three dozen states have reported nearly 500 cases of vaping-related illnesses since the beginning of the summer. Doctors have said that many patients appear to have vaped some THC or cannabis-related products, although others have reported using e-cigarettes as well. No one has singled out a particular company, device or product as the possible culprit.
Deaths have been reported in Illinois, Kansas, California, Indiana, Minnesota and Oregon. The patients’ ages ranged from the 30s to middle-aged or older, and some had underlying lung or other chronic conditions, health officials said.
Months ago, public and agency pressure forced Juul to yank its flavored pods — which were considered to appeal particularly to youths — from store shelves. The FDA said at the time that it would seek to have retailers curb access to products to keep them away from minors.
Since Dr. Scott Gottlieb resigned as FDA commissioner in April, the agency has appeared to be more sluggish in its efforts to control the epidemic of youth vaping. Although Sharpless had said he planned to continue the agency’s work to reduce both cigarette and e-cigarette use, not much moved forward. Gottlieb’s proposal to ban menthol in cigarettes, for example, has languished, as has his call for reducing nicotine in cigarettes to nonaddictive amounts.
That appears to have changed this week. On Monday, the FDA took action against Juul, sending a warning letter accusing the company of violating federal regulations by promoting its vaping products as a healthier option than cigarettes.
There is little conclusive research on the long-term safety of using Juul or other e-cigarettes. The company’s flavor pods have a higher level of nicotine than cigarettes do, which is of concern because of the impact nicotine can have on the still-developing teenage brain.
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