In the coming weeks, it is expected that the Trump administration may announce one of the most aggressive regulatory actions against small businesses in decades by removing most electronic cigarettes from the market. Misdirected hysteria over hundreds of reported vaping-related illnesses and a number of deaths has led to a full-blown moral panic. Not only would a flavored product ban potentially cost Trump re-election next year, but it would be inconsistent with the president’s entire deregulatory agenda and completely fail to address the true problem, an out-of-control illicit THC and marijuana market.
There is some reason for hope, however. Two days after President Trump’s vaping announcement on September 11th, he made an unprecedented endorsement on Twitter of the concept of tobacco harm reduction, which is the informed belief that for adults that smoke cigarettes, vaping is a far better alternative. The president deserves praise for saying what many in the public health industrial complex refuse to – that vaping is better than smoking. Hardworking people who are still struggling with an addiction to tobacco need the president to go one step further. They need him to put the brakes on plans to remove flavored nicotine vapor products from the market.
“Vaping,” whether used to describe marijuana or nicotine use, has been going on for a decade in the United States. There is scant to limited evidence to even suggest that THC itself, the chemical that gets you high, is to blame for the recent wave of illnesses and deaths we’ve seen. The same goes for nicotine. What we’re experiencing is the dark underbelly of an out-of-control illicit marijuana market, where drug dealers are either “cutting” products sourced from legal markets like California so that they can make more money or they’re using untested terpenes in cartridges that people vape to get high. We also know that vitamin E acetate, among other constituents, has been found in THC vaping cartridges collected from some patients who have experienced health issues.
If you believe that addressing teenage experimentation with e-cigarettes warrants federal action, it can be achieved through sensible regulations instead of outright prohibition. Many of the concerns expressed by members of Congress and the administration about nicotine vapor products revolve around advertising and marketing. In the nearly three years that the FDA has been in Republican hands, they have not released any guidance or rules on the marketing of vapor products. The agency’s lack of marketing rules places part of the blame for the advertising actions of some companies square in their hands. Banning certain flavor descriptors, particularly those that violate trademarks of food, beverage, and candy companies makes common sense. Why isn’t that under consideration?
It’s also worth asking why an overwhelming number of Congressional Democrats refused to support the bipartisan Cole-Bishop amendment to numerous federal agriculture appropriations bills, language that would have banned vapor product advertising in publications and across media platforms where teenagers were a significant part of the audience. These are the same politicians who have no problem with the continued existence of “Mango Maui Wowie Fruit” and “Orange Creamsicle Creampop” THC edibles in states like Oregon, Washington, and California but don’t think smokers should have access to “cherry” nicotine e-cigarettes.
Another sensible action the administration should take instead of a flavor ban is to crack down on the sale of counterfeit and illicit products, whether they are available in retail stores or through platforms like Amazon, eBay, and Alibaba. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also offered alternative proposals to raise the age to use all tobacco and vapor products to 21, a better alternative to an outright ban for all adult consumers.
An entire industry comprised of more than 10,000 new small businesses that employ at least 80,000 people should not be punished for the perceived actions of one San Francisco-based company that has publicly stated that they support a ban on flavors. There isn’t a precedent for this sort of industry-wide regulatory overreaction when the targets for enforcement should be limited to the bad actors alone.
Treating millions of adult vapers like disfavored “deplorables” is both bad politics and horrible health policy. President Trump should put on pause the FDA’s initiative to ban flavored nicotine products and sit down with and get to know some of the hardworking small business owners and adult consumers who supported him in 2016 and desperately need his support right now.