Sen. Mitt Romney spars with vaping execs at White House meeting with Trump over youth addiction

(Susan Walsh | AP Photo) President Donald Trump, right, speaks as he sits next to Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, left, as they participate in a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, on youth vaping and the electronic cigarette epidemic.

Washington • President Donald Trump on Friday proposed banning the sale of e-cigarette products to people under the age of 21 after meeting with Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, health officials and representatives of the vaping industry.

Romney said after the White House meeting that all sides of the debate got a full hearing about vaping — which has led to an estimated 5 million youngsters being introduced to tobacco — and the Utah Republican said the government needed to step in.

“I'm hopeful the FDA will take action to protect the public health and protect our kids and will not be subject to, you know, political or industry pressure,” Romney told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Romney, who has suggested the Food and Drug Administration recall e-cigarettes as reports surfaced of illnesses associated with their use, said Trump had invited other senators but he was the only one to show.

Friday’s meeting in the Cabinet Room was focused on the issue of juvenile addiction and how to put the brakes on a dramatic increase in vaping among minors.

Romney and health officials had pushed for a ban on flavored e-cigarettes, as Trump said in September he was going to do. But two months later no action has been taken, and it has been reported that Trump has backed away from that plan because of heavy industry lobbying, including warnings of the loss of more than 100,000 jobs.

Industry officials have pushed an alternative: prohibiting sale of e-cigarettes to customers under age 21. It appeared by the end of Friday’s meeting that the president had decided to pursue that approach without saying whether he also would embrace the idea of banning flavors.

“Twenty-one, we are going to be doing that,” Trump said.

Romney, during the meeting, said stronger action is needed.

“It’s the flavors that’s drawing the kids in, it’s a health emergency,” the Utah senator said. “We’ve got nearly 6 million kids addicted to nicotine and they’re getting addicted to nicotine because of flavors.”

He said two-thirds of youngsters who vape have told researchers they didn’t know they were inhaling nicotine. “They thought it was a candy-type product. ... Cotton candy flavor and unicorn poop flavor. This is [a] kid product and we have to put the kids first.”

The Utah senator praised the company Juul for voluntarily ending sales of flavors, a point competing vaping industry representatives said was a ploy to corner the market because Juul has the capital to sit back while smaller companies fall by the wayside.

As he was lamenting what he described as an epidemic, Romney at one point said that “Utah is a Mormon [dominated] state and half the kids in high school are vaping.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches members not to use tobacco.

After the meeting, Romney said he didn’t know the exact percentage of high school students that are using vaping products but that “we’re well above the national average” in Utah, and he says something needs to be done.

The vaping industry officials, Romney said, were vocal in protecting their products.

“They had a disproportionate voice — not because there were more of them — but they were loud and animated,” Romney said. “And the doctors, the doctors were unanimous. It was interesting. All of the various public health organizations were unanimous that you’ve got to get rid of the flavored products. There was unanimity on that that that point of view. But of course, the vaping people disagreed.”

Among other arguments, these representatives warned that a ban on flavored e-cigarettes could result in the closure of 13,000 small businesses and the loss of 150,000 jobs.

Romney disputed these numbers, calculating that if every vaping shop closed it would affect something like 40,000 jobs — and he equated that to losing less than one job for every 100 kids who might be prevented from becoming addicted to nicotine.

Trump said barring alcohol sales during Prohibition didn’t stop drinking and just boosted the black market.

“If you don’t give it to them, it is going to come here illegally," the president said. He returned multiple times to this theme of “counterfeit” and black market e-cigarettes flooding in to fill the vacuum if a flavor ban were imposed.

The White House later issued a read-out of the meeting, noting that there were diverse opinions in the room but that “all in attendance agreed that the growing trend of e-cigarette addiction among American middle- and high-school youth is an urgent and important national issue.”

“The president appreciated the candid conversation,” the White House said.

Romney said it wasn't clear what action the administration would ultimately take but that it was good to bring everyone together for the discussion.

“This was a meeting for the president to receive input from both sides, and he received ample input from both sides,” Romney said. “And what the administration will do, I don’t know.”

News editor Dan Harrie contributed to this report.