WASHINGTON — Proponents and critics of vaping Friday debated strenuously before President Donald Trump on whether the federal government should ban flavored e-cigarettes, in a public-policy version of “The Apprentice” that featured combatants trying to score points with a demanding host who also happens to be the president.
At the end, no one was fired, and it seemed as though the contest — which involved a major public health issue — was far from over.
The president, for his part, raised questions about the wisdom of outright “prohibition” of e-cigarette flavors, although he himself had announced one two months ago. He noted Friday that bans could lead to proliferation of black-market products. “If you don’t give it to them, it is going to come here illegally,” he said at the meeting with vaping and tobacco industry leaders, public-health advocates and others on the surge in underage vaping. “They could be selling something on a street corner that could be horrible. They are going to have a flavor that is poison.”
At the same time, Trump indicated support for legislation to raise the federal minimum age for buying tobacco products to 21 from 18, which is pending in Congress.
While health groups generally support an age increase, they say “Tobacco 21,” as it is called, is not enough to check the increase in teen vaping. “Raising the age doesn’t fix the main problem,” Gary Reedy, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society, said after the meeting. “As long as the flavors are there, kids are going to be enticed.”
In the hour-long session in the Cabinet Room, the various participants argued their views, occasionally shouting their disapproval. At one point, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who supported the comprehensive e-cigarette flavor ban that Trump touted in September but has since balked at finalizing, said most adults do not use flavors.
“Yes, they do!” yelled vaping advocates, offering to provide sales statistics.
Some health group members objected loudly when they felt vaping advocates understated the prevalence of e-cigarette use among young people. More than five million teens have vaped in the last 30 days, they pointed out, citing the latest federal data.
Trump announced a ban on non-tobacco flavored vapes on Sept. 11 but earlier this month retreated from the decision because of concerns that job losses in the vaping industry and disgruntled vapers could hurt his reelection prospects, The Washington Post has reported.
One thing seemed clear: The White House isn’t close to issuing a final vaping policy. “The policy is still being debated,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which backs a broad ban on flavored vapes.
The meeting had its share of tension. Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, argued afterward the “health groups were 100 percent obstinate” in pushing for a flavor ban. Those groups responded that evidence shows that flavors lure kids into what can be a lifelong nicotine addiction.
Many in the room tried hard to appeal to Trump’s predilection for following his gut.
“Our solution is your solution,” said Meredith Berkman, co-founder of the advocacy group, Parents Against Vaping E-Cigs.
“If it were your solution, it would be just ban it, right?” Trump interrupted her.
“No, no . . . our solution is what you had the right instinct for in the beginning,” Berkman said. “The flavors have hooked the kids. So take the flavors and leave the tobacco flavor for adults. We’re not prohibitionist.”
Vaping representatives tried to appeal to Trump’s ego as well.
“Mr. President, your instincts on Sept. 11 were correct, but facts and the situation changed,” said Conley. “On Sept. 11, you were under the impression . . . that vaping was killing people,” referring to the vaping-related lung diseases that emerged last summer and have killed at least 47 people. Federal officials recently pointed to vitamin E acetate in illicit THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, as a likely culprit but said there could be more than one cause.
After the meeting, Trump huddled with senior aides and asked for more information and another meeting Friday night to discuss the policy with advisers, officials said. But that was postponed until next week after some of the aides said they wanted to gather more information and data before what could be a pivotal session with the president, likely before he goes to Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday.
“I know he sounded like he was against the ban of flavors, but I’m honestly not sure where he is going to come out,” said one person familiar with the president’s thinking.
Even before the meeting, invitees and their representatives were bracing for an intense session. Trump is known to relish freewheeling debate from antagonists on controversial issues. In a tense meeting in July, for example, he hosted leading U.S. airlines and Qatar Airways to air U.S. carriers’ gripes that they were being undercut by heavily subsidized Mideast airlines.
After the meeting on Friday, participants on both sides said they welcomed the chance to air their differences.
Among the health groups that participated were the American Lung Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians and Truth Initiative. Pro-vaping groups included Vapor Technology Association, a trade association, as well as officials from Americans for Tax Reform and Heritage Action. Also attending were top officials from Juul Labs, the nation’s leading e-cigarette maker that has been criticized for setting off the youth-vaping surge, as well as Altria, which owns 35 percent of Juul, and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Administration officials who took part included Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, senior presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway, and Domestic Policy Council chief Joe Grogan.
Even as the White House struggles to settle on an e-cigarette policy, the battle over vaping continues on other fronts. The New York City Council on Thursday agreed to ban flavored e-cigarettes. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts State Senate this week approved a sweeping ban on all flavored tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and menthol cigarettes. If the legislation, which has already passed the House, is signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, it will be the toughest state ban in the country.
Washington Post writer Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.