House

Congress feels heat to act on youth vaping

Pressure is building on Congress to act on rising youth vaping rates amid inaction from President Trump.

House Democrats plan to pass a bill by year's end that would ban flavored e-cigarette products they say helped to spark a teen vaping epidemic. 

Democrats found themselves in rare agreement with Trump when he vowed to clear the market of those products two months ago, but he has since backed off after facing a backlash from vapers, conservative groups and the industry. 

"This White House has been co-opted by the tobacco industry," Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), the co-sponsor of the bill, told The Hill on Tuesday. 

"We're going to pass a comprehensive bill. We're not going to compromise," said Shalala, who served as secretary of the Health and Human Services Department during the Clinton administration. 

Passing such a bill is likely to be a challenge - particularly in a divided Congress consumed by impeachment.

Shalala's bill, which passed out of a key committee Tuesday and will get a vote on the House floor by the end of the year, would ban flavors in tobacco products, including e-cigarettes; raise the tobacco-purchasing age to 21; and ban all online tobacco sales.

Advocates are hopeful the measure, or portions of it, will make it into a year-end spending bill - which itself is the subject of pained negotiations between Democrats and Republicans.

If the bill does get out of the House, it faces an uncertain path in the Senate, where the Republican majority typically eschews government regulation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has offered legislation that would raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21- a proposal Trump has also suggested. 

Asked whether Congress should pursue a flavors ban, McConnell declined to answer. 

"I'm going to focus ... on raising the age to 21. That's something everybody could agree on, something we ought to accomplish quickly," he said. 

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have offered legislation to require age verification for all online purchases of e-cigarettes. It would also require that an adult with an ID sign for the delivery. 

A Cornyn aide told The Hill he plans to push for Senate passage of the bill "soon." A similar measure sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) passed the House last month. 

The percentage of teenagers who are vaping has doubled in the past two years, according to data released in September. 

An estimated 27.5 percent of high school students, and 10.5 percent of middle school students, said they had used e-cigarettes in the past month, according to one of the studies conducted by government researchers.

Anti-tobacco advocates like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids have pushed both the Trump administration and Congress to ban flavors to curb youth vaping rates. 

But they've run into opposition from conservative free-market groups, industry and pro-vaping advocates. 

Reporting from The New York Times and other outlets suggests Trump was swayed by the #ivapeivote campaign, in which vapers said they would not vote for the president in 2020 if he pursued a flavor ban. 

But members of Congress acknowledge there is more they could be doing to curb youth vaping rates. 

"They said two months ago they were going to do something about the flavors," DeLauro told The Hill Tuesday. 

"This is a public health crisis, and we will take a look at what it is that we can do."

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who is sponsoring a Senate bill to ban flavored e-cigarettes, asked last week:, "Why haven't we done anything about flavors?"

"If it were to pass, my presumption is we'd have a dramatic impact on reducing the number of kids that get addicted to nicotine," he added. 

"We are looking for every vehicle we can to get a ban on vaping flavors," Romney told The Hill on Monday.

Nathaniel Weixel contributed.

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