President Donald Trump’s White House meeting with vaping lobbyists and anti-tobacco activists erupted in shouting and debate Friday afternoon as the president seemed poised to backpedal on his ban of flavored e-cigarettes.
“You watch prohibition,” Trump said during the session. “If you don’t give it to them, it is going to come here illegally. … They could be selling something on a street corner that could be horrible. … They are going to have a flavor that is poison.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), an outspoken critic of flavored e-cigarettes, told the president that most adults are not using flavors, prompting vaping industry leaders in the room to shout, “Yes they do!” and to offer sales statistics, according to a pool report.
“Utah is a Mormon state, and half the kids in high school are vaping,” said Romney, who’s sponsoring a bill that would ban flavors.
The president said the administration will raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21, which many representatives in the room — from tobacco and vaping industries, and anti-tobacco groups — support. But he seemed to retreat from the widespread ban he promised in September that would cover flavored e-cigarettes, including mint and menthol products.
That announcement was a response to growing rates of teen vaping and an ongoing outbreak of vaping-linked lung illnesses that has killed at least 47 and sickened nearly 2,300 people. Black market products have been linked to most of the vaping casualties.
Trump reportedly wavered on the ban in recent weeks after being told it could eliminate thousands of small-business jobs and anger his voters. Recent comments from White House aides suggest that menthol and even age-restricted vape shops could be exempt.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asked attendees for their thoughts on focusing a ban on the sleek cartridge-based products sold in convenience stores that appeal to teens, according to two people in the room.
Acting FDA Commissioner Brett Giroir also attended the meeting though he did not ask questions, attendees said.
Those attending Friday’s meeting included Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids President Matthew Myers and Gary Reedy, CEO of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. Both groups, along with dozens of other health organizations, fervently support a ban on e-cigarette flavors and have criticized the administration over the stalled plan.
American Vaping Association president Greg Conley and the Vapor Technology Association’s executive director, Tony Abboud, also attended. They say a widespread flavor ban would shutter thousands of businesses and make it harder for former smokers to stay off cigarettes, or for current smokers to switch.
R.J. Reynolds president Joe Fragnito, Altria CEO Howard Willard and e-cigarette company NJOY’s CEO Ryan Nivakoff also attended. Fragnito and Nivakoff pushed back on flavor restrictions, saying they were not necessarily a public health issue and that companies can market flavors responsibly.
Americans for Tax Reform, a free-market group that has circulated polling figures to Trump that suggested a flavor ban would hurt his reelection, also attended along with Heritage Action. Both groups have signed on with a coalition of conservative organizations that oppose the president’s proposed flavor ban.
Raising the tobacco purchasing age to 21 has gained momentum in Congress, where a bipartisan measure backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell passed the Senate’s health committee this summer. But Republicans have balked at more sweeping efforts from House Democrats that would also ban flavored tobacco and online tobacco sales.
The conversation was heated at times with people speaking over each other, but health groups stayed firm, said American Cancer Society’s Reedy. The only consensus among everyone was raising the purchasing age to 21 — “but we made that very clear that that’s not a check the box thing and you move on to the next issue,” Reedy said.
A White House readout of the meeting said, “The president appreciated the candid conversation.”
Animosity lingered after the meeting.
“None of these people want compromise. They want every product removed from the market, no exception,” said Americans for Tax Reform’s Paul Blair, who was not in the room but discussed the meeting with colleagues.
“The industry groups, as they always are, were loud, strident and uncompromising,” Tobacco Free Kids’ Myers told POLITICO.
Blair said that Trump’s remarks about illicit trade and a black market for vaping products bode well for the industry. That and concern over jobs reflected “a more reasonable and sensible approach that wasn’t necessarily apparent in September,” he said.
But Myers pushed back on the idea that the president was shifting his thinking. “It would be a mistake to prejudge an outcome based upon the questions,” he told POLITICO, adding that it was “a very free flowing conversation” in which health, physician and parent groups showed unanimity.