WASHINGTON — Everything seemed ready to go: President Donald Trump’s ban on most e-cigarette flavors had been cleared by federal regulators. Officials were poised to announce that they would order candy, fruit and mint flavors off the market within 30 days — a step the president had promised almost two months earlier to quell a youth vaping epidemic that had ensnared 5 million teenagers.
One last thing was needed: Trump’s sign-off. But on Nov. 4, the night before a planned morning news conference, the president balked. Briefed on a flight to a Lexington, Kentucky, campaign rally, he refused to sign the one-page “decision memo,” saying he didn’t want to move forward with a ban he had once backed, primarily at his wife’s and daughter’s urging, because he feared it would lead to job losses, said a Trump adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal deliberations.
As he had done so many times before, Trump reversed course — this time on a plan to address a major public health problem because of worries that apoplectic vape shop owners and their customers might hurt his re-election prospects, said White House and campaign officials. He also believed job losses tied to the ban would cost him as he sought to trumpet economic growth. It was the latest example of the chaotic way policy is made — and sometimes unmade — in a White House where the ultimate decider often switches gears after making a controversial vow, whether on combating gun violence, pulling troops from Syria or promising to deliver an Obamacare replacement plan.
Officials said the blowback to Trump’s vow to ban most flavored e-cigarettes had rattled him. In an aggressive social media campaign — #IVapeIVote — advocates claimed the ban would shut down thousands of shops, eliminating jobs and sending vapers back to cigarettes. The president saw protesters at events and read critical articles. His campaign manager, Brad Parscale, privately warned that the ban could hurt Trump in battleground states, said a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Trump was now upset with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who had taken the lead in rolling out the plan, said three officials familiar with the discussions.
“He didn’t know much about the issue and was just doing it for Melania and Ivanka,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share the discussions.
In recent months, the president’s wife and daughter, who had become increasingly alarmed about youth vaping, were pressing him to take action.
An HHS spokeswoman declined to comment on the vaping deliberations.
Whether or when the administration will unveil a new policy to combat underage vaping is now unclear. “President Trump and this administration are committed to responsibly protecting the health of children,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said. “At this time, we are in an ongoing rulemaking process, and I will not speculate on the final outcome.”
Late last week, more than a dozen White House officials met to try to find a way forward. “Will be meeting with representatives of the Vaping industry, together with medical professionals and individual state representatives, to come up with an acceptable solution to the Vaping and E-cigarette dilemma,” Trump tweeted last week. “Children’s health & safety, together with jobs, will be a focus!”
Given Trump’s record of zigzags, some officials cautioned that the president could reverse course again. Or he might back some ban on flavored e-cigarettes that exempts vape shops. Others said the White House might pursue a different tack altogether by endorsing legislation that would raise the minimum federal age for buying tobacco products to 21 from 18, or take other steps to try to prevent teens from getting access to the products.
Some bet that the anti-vaping effort is dead, though, especially because the administration could argue that the youth vaping problem has been greatly eased by Juul Labs’ recent decision to stop selling its popular mint-flavored nicotine pods.
“It’s going to go the way of guns,” one adviser predicted, referring to Trump’s abandonment of efforts to fight gun violence after insisting he would take action after last summer’s mass shootings.
At least for now, vaping proponents are relieved. “It’s a great feeling in two months to go from thinking that prohibition was inevitable to actually proving that your issue has resonance with voters to such an extent that the president of the United States takes notice,” said Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, a pro-vaping advocacy group.
Anti-tobacco groups expressed frustration that a comprehensive e-cigarette flavor ban may be slipping away. “It appears that politics, not public health, is driving the decisions,” said Robin Koval, chief executive and president of Truth Initiative.
The administration’s intense focus on e-cigarettes began more than a year ago, when then-Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb sounded the alarm about “an epidemic” of youth vaping that was hooking a new generation on nicotine, a problem he blamed largely on Juul, the industry leader. Late last year, the company suspended sales of many of its flavored products in brick-and-mortar stores and later stopped the sales online.
In March, just before stepping down, Gottlieb proposed restricting sales of most flavored e-cigarettes to adult-only stores, or ones with adult-only sections and heightened age verification. But the proposals were never finalized and by late summer, officials began getting new data that showed a second sharp increase in teen vaping. FDA and HHS officials decided an outright ban would be easier to enforce and more effective.
Vaping shot into public view this summer when at least three dozen people, many of them young, began dying from a mysterious vaping-related lung disease. Federal officials would pinpoint the most likely culprit as vitamin E acetate in vaping products with illicit THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. But because standard e-cigarettes couldn’t be totally ruled out, momentum grew for an aggressive attack on vapes.
On Sept. 11, several officials presented their plan to ban all nontobacco e-cigarettes to Trump, who was in an expansive mood after a Republican victory in a special election for a North Carolina congressional seat. Trump announced the ban that day, winning the praise of health groups and the ire of the vaping industry. “People think it’s an easy solution to cigarettes, but it’s turned out that it has its own difficulties,” he said then.
Two days later, though, in a sign of his discomfort, Trump tweeted that he liked “the Vaping alternative to Cigarettes,” but wanted to keep children from using them. Aides said that was the first signal they saw that he could reverse course.
Over the next several weeks, the FDA worked to finalize the ban, which would order most flavored vape products off the market and allow them back only if manufacturers got agency authorization. Meanwhile, opposition continued to mount. Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, shared polling he commissioned from pollster John McLaughlin that showed vapers could abandon the president if he followed through on the prohibition, according to a person familiar with the effort.
Conservative groups, including the influential Americans for Tax Reform led by Grover Norquist, pressed the vape shops’ case on Twitter and in opinion articles.
On Oct. 31, aides met with Trump again. By then, they had decided to exempt menthol from the ban because new federal data showed that the flavor wasn’t popular among young people and that they wanted to keep menthol vapes on the market as long as menthol e-cigarettes are legal. A final briefing for Trump was planned for the following Monday, during Trump’s trip to Kentucky to campaign for Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
That Monday, the Office of Management and Budget cleared the vaping policy and began canceling meetings it had scheduled with interest groups to discuss the plan. The move angered vaping and conservative organizations and signaled that an announcement could be imminent.
But the announcement never came. Confusion deepened in the days that followed, when presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway appeared to suggest that vape shops weren’t subject to FDA regulation, and Joe Grogan, the head of the Domestic Policy Council, told reporters it was “a huge waste of time” for the agency to regulate tobacco products. Internally, aides said there was no longer a united front.
On Nov. 9, Trump’s helicopter, taking him to the Alabama-Lousiana State University football game, flew over hundreds of vaping enthusiasts organizing to protest the flavor ban.
Emboldened vaping advocates said that if the industry beats back a federal flavor ban, it must continue to flex its muscle to address proliferating state and local prohibitions, as well as a court-ordered deadline of May 2020 when manufacturers must file applications with the FDA to continue selling e-cigarettes. Firms that don’t file could be forced off the market.
The White House will meet with vaping groups this week, officials said.
“We need to reignite the issue and make the administration and the re-election team aware that the magnitude of the threat in May 2020 is just as huge and industry-crushing as the flavor ban is today,” said the vaping association’s Conley.
Anti-tobacco groups aren’t backing down either. “If the federal government doesn’t take strong action, it’s clear now the states will,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “There’s a crisis that needs to be addressed.”
Washington Post writers Yasmeen Abutaleb and Michael Scherer contributed to this report.