President Donald Trump announced plans for what appeared to be a wide-ranging meeting to find solutions for kids and businesses impacted by the “Vaping and E-cigarette dilemma,” in a tweet on Monday.
According to Trump, the meeting would be attended by medical professionals, as well as vaping industry and state representatives. “Children’s health & safety, together with jobs, will be a focus!” he said in the tweet.
CNN contacted more than two dozen leading experts, health and medical organizations, e-cigarette industry groups, pro- and anti-vaping advocacy groups, and elected officials who have publicly investigated and acted to curb what many call an “epidemic” of use among youth.
More than two-thirds responded, and none have received an invitation. The White House declined to comment to CNN.
The administration has been working on a policy that could impact the sale of flavored vaping products. Suspicions that it might back down from an earlier announcement that the policy would require the removal of all vaping flavors from the market, however, has drawn sharp criticism from multiple health and advocacy groups. Meanwhile, vaping industry representatives have argued such policies would curtail some adult smokers’ efforts to quit, put small vaping companies out of business and eliminate jobs.
A moving target
“My sense is that this is really a moving target,” Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, said in an email Monday. Siegel, a longtime tobacco researcher, had no knowledge of the meeting.
On September 11, Trump said that the US Food and Drug Administration would put out “some very strong recommendations” regarding the sale of flavored e-cigarettes.
At the time, US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the enforcement policy would require all e-cigarette companies to take their non-tobacco flavored products off the market – including mint and menthol.
Then came speculation that the administration could back down from its earlier stance by including exceptions for mint and menthol, prompting more than 50 health and advocacy groups to send letters to Azar and first lady Melania Trump calling for them to “stay the course.”
When members of the administration began to express concern for small businesses, “it appeared that maybe vape shops would be exempt,” Siegel said.
Outside the White House on Friday, President Trump said the age to purchase vaping products in the United States could rise to 21.
“We have to take care of our kids, most importantly, so we’re going to have an age limit of 21 or so, so we’ll be coming out with something next week very important on vaping,” Trump said.
When asked on Friday if the administration was stepping back from restricting flavors, he said, “We’re talking about the age, we’re talking about flavors, we’re also talking about keeping people working.”
Now, Siegel said, “it appears that nothing has been decided and he’s considering all options, trying to balance youth protection with the concerns of small businesses.”
“So I really have no idea what the final announcement will look like.”
Who’s at the table?
Key players from various sides of the e-cigarette debate told CNN they had not been invited by the White House to such a meeting.
“We have not yet heard from the White House about this,” the American Academy of Pediatrics tweeted in response to the president, strongly urging the administration “to engage the medical community in these discussions.”
“As far as we know, there is not a meeting scheduled yet,” Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, said in an e-mail Monday. “The White House has our number, so we are hopeful that we will be included.”
Conley said his and other organizations had been scheduled to meet with the White House in September regarding the flavor ban, but that meeting was canceled. On November 4, Conley tweeted that another meeting with administration officials had been canceled “since the rule is no longer under review,” according to a notification he posted in a screenshot.
A number of groups have been part of prior discussions with the administration regarding e-cigarette enforcement priorities – including the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
But the president’s tweet was news to these health groups, as well.
The American Lung Association said it was “anxious to learn more about this meeting,” according to an e-mailed statement Monday. The association urged Trump “to keep his promise and clear the markets of all flavored e-cigarettes, including vapes with nicotine. Anything less puts millions of children at risk.”
Leading e-cigarette company Juul Labs declined to provide an answer as to whether it had heard from the administration about such a meeting, though a spokesperson said the company is “continuing to refrain from lobbying the administration on its draft flavor guidance while we take significant actions to combat underage use and convert adult smokers.”
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Juul also announced last week it was halting sales of mint pods online and through retailers, following research showing that nearly 60% of high school students who vape use Juul as their usual brand, with mint being the most popular Juul flavor among high schoolers.
In September, the FDA revealed that 27.5% of high school students were current users of e-cigarettes in 2019 – up from 20.8% in 2018 and 11.7% in 2017. Researchers estimate more than 5 million US middle and high school students currently use e-cigarettes, and 970,000 use them daily.