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Sharp divides on how to reverse teen vaping epidemic

Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) speaks as President Donald Trump listens during a cabinet meeting at the White House on November 22, 2019 in Washington, DC.

Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

President Donald Trump raised his concern about the possible negative consequences of banning flavored e-cigarettes during an at-times hostile meeting on Friday with vaping industry executives and public health advocates.

Trump on Sept. 11 said the administration was readying a ban on flavored e-cigarettes. More than two months later, Trump reportedly reversed course and refused to sign off on that plan. He invited executives from tobacco and e-cigarette companies, including market leader Juul, as well as public health groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, to make their case.

Trump asked the participants for their solutions to the epidemic. Public health advocates urged Trump to follow through with his original plan to remove flavored e-cigarettes from the market. Trump repeatedly said the prospect of illegal — and possibly more harmful — products filling the void alarmed him.

“If you don’t give it to them, it’s going to come here illegally,” Trump said to a chorus of “yes” and “you’re right” responses from vaping advocates. “And instead of Reynolds or Juul or legitimate companies, good companies making something safe, they’re going to be selling stuff on the street corner that’s going to be horrible.”

Trump said he had read about bad products making people sick, apparently referring to an outbreak of a vaping lung disease that has sickened nearly 2,300 people and killed 47.

Trump on Friday said he supports raising the tobacco buying age to 21, a stance he first announced earlier this month.

The meeting displayed sharp divides on whether e-cigarettes are one of the best or worst developments in public health. Some argue e-cigarettes can help adult smokers. Others say the products are merely hooking a new generation to nicotine after years of successfully convincing kids not to smoke cigarettes.

Flavors are at the heart of the divide. Proponents say flavors help adults transition from cigarettes. Opponents say they attract kids and mask the harms of e-cigarettes. Those divisions came to a head, with multiple shouting matches with attendees yelling over each other breaking out throughout the meeting.

One of the most heated moments came when Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, alleged that most adults are not using flavors. Numerous attendees shouted their disagreement. Trump pressed the industry representatives in the room, particularly K.C. Crosthwaite, CEO of Juul, the market leading e-cigarette company.

Juul recently stopped selling its sweet flavors, including mint, as federal survey data showed they were popular among teens. Crosthwaite said Juul felt it “was a serious problem” and the company had to “act quickly.”

“So you think flavors are dangerous, essentially,” Trump said.

“When we saw the youth data, we felt the responsible thing to do as a leader in the industry was to remove the flavors given that youth were gaining access to the flavors,” Crosthwaite said, adding that flavors “have demonstrated an important role” in helping adult smokers switch to e-cigarettes from cigarettes.

Trump did not indicate which way the administration was leaning.

“We want to take care of our kids,” he said.

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids President Matt Myers in an interview following the meeting said it would be “a mistake” to pre-judge where Trump is or where he will land based “purely on the questions he asked.”

“I think it was a very free-flowing conversation in which the president both asked questions all across the board and raised issues that he wanted to hear answers to,” Myers said.

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