President Donald Trump announced on September 11 that he wants the Food and Drug Administration to plan to pull flavored vaping products from the US market. Describing vaping as “a new problem in the country,” he told reporters after a policy meeting that “very, very strong action” may be needed to protect “innocent children.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar confirmed that the FDA is finalizing plans to “clear” all vape flavors except tobacco flavor. The process of implementing this would be expected to take several months.
The move will be viewed as enormously damaging by people who vape—many of whom relied on flavors in order to quit smoking—as well as scientists and tobacco harm reduction advocates.
According to the FDA’s statement:
Today, the Trump Administration announced that as part of its ongoing work to tackle the epidemic of youth e-cigarette use, the FDA intends to finalize a compliance policy in the coming weeks that would prioritize the agency’s enforcement of the premarket authorization requirements for non-tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes, including mint and menthol, clearing the market of unauthorized, non-tobacco-flavored e-cigarette products.
Despite the reference to “premarket authorization requirements,” observers believe that the operative part is the intent to clear the market of flavors, with no guarantee of their return. “It appears that they wish to ban all flavours,” David Sweanor, an industry expert and chair of the Advisory Board for Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa, told Filter. “There are millions of vapers now in the US, and most prefer non-tobacco flavors. So they will be deprived of their preferred product while they are also misinformed about risks, and the Centers for Disease Control is giving a ‘just say no’ message on vaping.”
When Michigan became, on September 4, the first state to ban flavors, Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health, told Filter that it was “a potential public health disaster.” Dr. David Abrams, a professor at the New York University College of Global Public Health, said: “It is terrible to restrict a less harmful product that smokers need to help them quit, while leaving harmful cigarettes in every other store. This policy damages [vapers] and makes them want to get their products from illicit sources, or they’ll be forced back to smoking cigarettes.”
A nationwide flavor ban would have an exponentially larger impact, with 12 million Americans estimated to vape. Research has indicated that vaping is about 95 percent less harmful than smoking, and that vapes are about twice as helpful in quitting smoking as nicotine patches or gum. Over 34 million Americans currently smoke, and they suffer almost half a million smoking-related deaths each year.
As Helen Redmond wrote for Filter on September 9, opponents of tobacco harm reduction have recently been emboldened by a knee-jerk, misinformed panic about reports of vaping-associated lung disease and death. A cash injection of $160 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies to fight youth vaping, in part to support a partnership with the anti-harm reduction Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, was also announced this week.
But the “think of the children” argument so beloved of drug prohibitionists and repeated by Trump has been integral to the “public health” campaign against vaping for years. Claims that an “epidemic” of vaping exists among non-smoking American youth have been dismantled by experts such as Clive Bates, former director of Action on Smoking and Health (UK).
Smokers, who disproportionately belong to marginalized groups including people with low incomes, people with mental health diagnoses, LGBTQ people and people of color, will bear the consequences in terms of reduced quitting options if a nationwide flavor ban is implemented. People who have successfully switched to vaping will also be at risk of switching back if they lose their favored flavors.
“The entirely foreseeable consequence is vapers returning to cigarettes, cigarette smokers being dissuaded from switching to a massively lower-risk alternative, and the perpetuation of the health catastrophe of cigarette smoking,” said Sweanor. “Had the same approach been taken on auto safety, people would still be driving cars that Nader long ago pointed out were ‘unsafe at any speed.’”
“I have argued that a flavored e-cigarette ban would drive masses of ex-smokers from vaping back to smoking,” wrote Dr. Siegel on September 12. “This prediction now seems to be confirmed by a number of tobacco financial analysts, who are alerting investors that such a ban would substantially boost the sale of cigarettes.”
“Without the flavors I couldn’t have quit cigarettes,” Michigan resident and vape shop owner Nasser Saleh recently told Filter. “The vape juice without it has a really weird aftertaste. But when you find a flavor you really like, the cigarettes will taste more and more disgusting in comparison. So many of my customers have told me the same.”
“I have received dozens of phone calls [from vapers] who are concerned about their health and lives,” Spike Babian, a tobacco harm reduction advocate and New York vape shop owner, told Filter regarding government scaremongering. “Even those who are educated about the lies we have been told by our government in the past are starting to worry. Many of them expressed intent to quit vaping and return to smoking. It is a tragedy that former smokers who smoked for decades and finally quit will return to smoking tobacco because their government told them that vaping will kill them.”
Opposition to vaping, shared by such bodies as the World Health Organization, centers on opposition to harm reduction itself—the blinkered, patronizing insistence that abstinence from a drug, however much reality might show abstinence not to happen in many cases, is the only acceptable way to keep people safer.
Filter contributor Michael McGrady wrote in March, as a thought experiment, about what would happen if the US instituted a total ban on vaping. Developments are rapidly making the scenario seem less and less far-fetched.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons