In a White House listening session that at times turned into a free-for-all shouting match, President Trump tried to get answers on the role of flavors in the adolescent “vaping epidemic,” and how to best regulate vaping products. And the attendees representing vapers and small vaping businesses gave as good as they got—or even better.
Part of the meeting was unexpectedly televised, allowing the whole country to hear Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids president Matthew Myers lie to the President’s face about tobacco being the most popular vaping flavor for adults. That wasn’t the only falsehood flung at Trump by anti-vaping activists.
Meredith Berkman of Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes (PAVe) insisted that there are millions of teenagers “addicted” to nicotine because of vaping, and that nothing short of banning all flavors would solve the problem. Myers agreed, as did the leaders of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Lung Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. (The lung association actually supports a total ban.)
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Trump aide Kellyanne Conway sat next to each other and smirked every time one of the vaping advocates made a claim. Romney at one point said, “Utah is a Mormon state, and half the kids in high school are vaping.” Romney then essentially said he doesn’t care if 100,000 vape shop jobs are lost, because 100 kids are “addicted” to nicotine for every one full-time vape shop employee—numbers he just made up on the spot.
Vapor Technology Association (VTA) executive director Tony Abboud and American Vaping Association (AVA) president Gregory Conley were effective fighting back against the propaganda and getting their points across. Neither was shy about addressing the most powerful person in the world, and defending vapers and vape shops against the prohibitionists surrounding them. Conley did double-duty, speaking on behalf of the independent businesses and vaping consumers (CASAA wasn’t invited).
Conley crucially reminded the President that since his September announcement that “Vaping kills,” the CDC has admitted that it is black market cannabis oil cartridges that are substantially responsible for the outbreak of lung injuries, not commercial nicotine products. That’s an easy out for Trump to take if he wants to reverse his position.
Conley further explained to the President that, even if the flavor issue is solved today, the May 2020 premarket tobacco application (PMTA) deadline will destroy all small vaping businesses. This got Trump’s attention, and he asked Conley if that was because they couldn’t afford the PMTA process.
He also explained that billionaire Michael Bloomberg, “who is no friend to your presidency,” has spent $160 million to achieve a total flavor ban. Therefore, Conley said, the representatives from Tobacco-Free Kids (which is administering the Bloomberg money) and PAVe were not seeking an honest compromise, but only prohibition.
President Trump seemed to easily grasp the problem of a complete flavor ban, noting that black markets would spring up to fill the vacuum. He seemed to resist advocates of complete prohibition, although it’s not clear if he understands that it is the wide variety of products that makes vaping successful as competition to cigarettes.
“You watch prohibition,” Trump said. “If you don’t give it to them, it is going to come here illegally. They could be selling something on a street corner that could be horrible. They are going to have a flavor that is poison.”
Ryan Nivakoff from NJOY earned praise from vapers watching on social media as he defended flavors, despite his company’s strong position in the c-store market. Reynolds American’s Joseph Fragnito said flavors can be marketed responsibly. Reynolds has already submitted a PMTA for some of its flavored Vuse products.
Newly appointed JUUL Labs CEO K.C. Crosthwaite, a former Altria executive, said his company—which is 35 percent-owned by Altria—was happy to comply with the existing PMTA process, prompting Conley to jump in and explain that JUUL has enough money to wait out the small companies that can’t afford to finance PMTAs and walk away with 90 percent of the market. This seemed to amuse Trump, who made an offhand reference to John D. Rockefeller, the early 20th century tycoon who built a monopoly at Standard Oil.
At one point, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asked VTA director Tony Abboud how much of vape shop business depends on “cartridges” (meaning closed pod-based vaping systems). Azar seemed to signal that the White House may be seeking a way to split the regulatory requirements for different segments of the market, which would be a huge win for vape shops and e-liquid manufacturers.
That question, and President Trump’s earlier question about small businesses not being able to afford the PMTA process may bode well for a positive outcome. Time will tell, but at the very least “small vapor” sat at a table with the big boys today and showed itself capable and competitive.
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