Washington • President Donald Trump said Wednesday that his administration will propose banning thousands of flavors used in e-cigarettes to combat a recent surge in underage vaping.
The Food and Drug Administration will develop guidelines to remove from the market all e-cigarette flavors except tobacco, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told reporters during an Oval Office appearance with the president, first lady Melania Trump and the acting FDA commissioner, Ned Sharpless.
Trump said vaping has become such a problem that he wants parents to be aware of what's happening. "People are going to watch what we're saying and parents are going to be a lot tougher with respect to their children," he said.
Melania Trump recently tweeted her concerns over the combination of children and vaping.
It will take several weeks to develop the proposed flavor restrictions, which will be subject to public input before taking effect.
Trump's first public comments on vaping come as health authorities investigate hundreds of breathing illnesses reported in people who have used e-cigarettes and other vaping devices.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who is seeking a recall of all vaping products on the market, quickly praised the administration’s more limited ban on flavored e-cigarettes.
These products, he said in a tweet, "are clearly intended to deceive our nation’s young people.
“Eliminating flavors is a good first step. Investigations into the temporary and long-term effects of e-cigarettes must continue.”
No single device, ingredient or additive has been identified as causing illness, though many cases involve marijuana vaping devices.
The proposal announced by Trump officials would only apply to nicotine vaping products, which are regulated by the FDA.
The FDA has had the authority to ban vaping flavors since 2016, but has previously resisted calls to take that step. Agency officials instead said they were studying if flavors could help smokers quit traditional cigarettes.
"We simply have to remove these attractive flavored products from the marketplace until they can secure FDA approval, if they can," Azar said.
Azar said flavored products could apply for FDA permission to reenter the market. But under agency standards, only products that represent a net benefit to the nation's public health can win FDA clearance.
Azar said the administration would allow tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes to remain available as an option for adult smokers. But he said that if children begin using those products, "we will take enforcement action there also."
A 2009 law banned all flavors from traditional cigarettes except menthol. But that law did not apply to e-cigarettes, which were then a tiny segment of the tobacco market.
A ban on flavors would represent a huge blow to the vaping industry, including companies such as Juul, which has grown into a multibillion dollar business by selling mint, fruit and dessert flavored-nicotine products.
Romney wants the government to go further and recall all e-cigarettes as investigations continue, and asked as much in a letter to Azar.
“We have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of our citizens, especially our young people, who are particularly susceptible to addiction,” Romney wrote, pointing to a doubling of e-cigarette use in the past five years in Utah.
He also cited a Washington Post report of a 20-year-old Provo man who nearly lost his life to a vaping-related illness, adding “I am increasingly concerned that a generation of young people has been deceived into thinking e-cigarettes are a safe alternative to smoking.”
The Utah senator asked HHS to provide information that could guide Congress in taking swift legislative action — including on the dangers of vaping refill pods and their modification by users to ingest other illicit and dangerous substances.
“Urgent responses to these questions and considerations are justified given the escalating public health crisis and the widespread availability and demand of these products,” Romney wrote.
Juul and other vaping companies argue that their products are intended to help adult smokers wean themselves off traditional paper-and-tobacco cigarettes. But there is little evidence that e-cigarettes are effective for helping smokers quit.
Federal law prohibits e-cigarette and all other tobacco sales to those under 18. But last year, 1 in 5 high school students reported vaping in the past month, according to government survey figures. Government health officials have called the trend an "epidemic," and new statistics due out this fall are expected to show the problem worsening.
More than 80 percent of underage teens who use e-cigarettes say they picked the product because it "comes in flavors that I like," according to government surveys.
A few local governments, including San Francisco, have passed bans on flavored tobacco. And this month Michigan moved to become the first state to ban flavored electronic cigarettes. But other proposed flavor bans have stalled in state legislatures this year, often facing opposition from vaping lobbyists.
In Utah, a bill in this year’s legislative session to increase taxes on e-cigarettes as a way to curb use easily passed the House but died in the Senate. Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, the state Legislature’s most vocal advocate of a crackdown on vaping, wants to ban the products, but said he will have alternative legislation if fellow lawmakers aren’t willing to go that far.
E-cigarettes have been on the U.S. market for more than a decade. FDA officials have repeatedly delayed enforcing regulations on them, responding to industry complaints that it would wipe out thousands of small vaping companies.
Most experts agree the aerosol from e-cigarettes is less harmful than cigarette smoke since it doesn’t contain most of the cancer-causing byproducts of burning tobacco. E-cigarettes generally heat liquid containing nicotine. But there is virtually no research on the long-term effects of vaping.
In addition to urging the administration to act, Romney asked Utah Gov. Gary Herbert for any recommendations on federal action and encouraged the state to address e-cigarettes, as well.
“I look forward to working with you as this investigation continues so that we may all work to keep Utahns, and all Americans, safe,” Romney wrote Herbert.
The Salt Lake Tribune contributed to his report.