Senators press FDA tobacco chief on status of vaping ban

Senators press FDA tobacco chief on status of vaping ban
© Greg Nash

Senators from both parties pressed the Trump administration’s top tobacco official on Wednesday for information about the administration’s efforts to remove e-cigarette flavors from the market.

Mitch Zeller, the head of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products, told members of the Senate Health Committee that the agency is working on an e-cigarette policy, but declined to give more information about when it will be released, what the policy will be, or even if the administration still intends to remove flavors from the marketplace.

When asked by the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson – House progressives may try to block vote on Pelosi drug bill | McConnell, Grassley at odds over Trump-backed drug pricing bill | Lawmakers close to deal on surprise medical bills Key negotiator says deal close on surprise medical bills legislation Senate passes bipartisan bill to permanently fund historically black colleges MORE (D-Wash.), why Zeller did not mention the so-called flavor ban in his opening remarks, Zeller referred her to the White House.

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“Any questions the committee has about the announcement the White House made ... is best referred to the White House itself,” Zeller said. “I can’t give you a timeline.”

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael Kaine'Granite Express' flight to take staffers, journalists to NH after Iowa caucuses Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Senate panel approves Trump FDA pick | Biden downplays Dem enthusiasm around 'Medicare for All' | Trump officials unveil program for free HIV prevention drugs for uninsured Trump's FDA nominee approved by Senate panel MORE (D-Va.) asked if the administration still intends to follow through on its initial promise of clearing the market of unapproved flavors.

“There is no final answer as of now,” Zeller said.

Kaine said Zeller’s answer wasn’t acceptable. 

“You are the person responsible. You should know the answer to this question,” Kaine said. 

Two months ago, President TrumpDonald John TrumpPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump FBI identifies Pensacola shooter as Saudi Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant Trump calls Warren 'Pocahontas,' knocks wealth tax MORE and the administration’s top health officials sat in the Oval Office and announced their intent to clear the market of every flavor of e-cigarettes except for tobacco.

At the time, Trump cited a massive spike in teen vaping and the spread of a mysterious illness that has now sickened more than 2,000 people across the country.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said after a 30-day effective date, all flavored e-cigarettes would be removed from the market, pending FDA approval. 

But recently, comments from Trump and other administration officials have lawmakers concerned about the delay. 

Officials like White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayOvernight Health Care: House to vote next week on drug prices bill | Conway says Trump trying to find 'balance' on youth vaping | US spent trillion on hospitals in 2018 White House adopts confident tone after Pelosi signals go on impeachment Conway: Trump trying to find 'balance' on youth vaping issue MORE as well as Azar, and even Trump himself, have been increasingly trying to draw a distinction between “e-cigarettes” and “vaping.”  

“It’s very important to separate the broader issue of vaping, which is inhaling … THC, CBD or a nicotine product, from e-cigarettes, which is what we can and do regulate,” Azar said during an event Wednesday morning.  

Members of Trump’s reelection campaign have also reportedly been urging him to exempt mint and menthol flavors from any potential flavor ban, and to carve out independent vape shops from regulation as well.

Last week, Trump told reporters he was going to protect jobs, and noted that vaping has become a “pretty big industry.”

“We’re talking about the age, we’re talking about flavors, we’re also talking about keeping people working, and there’s some pretty good aspects,” Trump said. 

During Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiHere are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump Senate confirms eight Trump court picks in three days The Hill's Morning Report - Dem impeachment report highlights phone records MORE (R-Alaska) told Zeller she was disappointed by the mixed signals coming from the administration. Murkowski is a primary sponsor of bipartisan legislation to crack down on flavored e-cigarette products.

“To feel like we’ve made some headway in reducing the availability of these flavors out on the market, but then to have very conflicting signals coming out from the FDA and the White House about whether or not menthol and mint are included in this, is, unfortunately, an escape,” Murkowski said. 

“I don’t think we need to nuance the message here, and I’m just frustrated that we are still arguing over whether or not menthol or mint as a flavor is an attractant to kids. If it makes it taste that much better, they’re going to be attracted to it,” Murkowski added. 

The status of FDA’s rule remains a mystery. 

The White House Office of Management and Budget completed regulatory review of a proposed rule about “electronic nicotine delivery systems” on Nov. 4, and canceled meetings with public health advocates as well as pro-vaping groups. 

But Azar indicated the rule isn’t finished yet, and said Trump is still interested in hearing from all stakeholders.

“What the president is doing now is trying to figure out the right balance” of making sure adults have access to e-cigarettes to help wean them off combustible tobacco, while also preventing children from getting addicted. 

Trump tweeted Monday morning that he plans to meet with representatives of the vaping industry, medical professionals and state representatives to “come up with an acceptable solution to the vaping and e-cigarette dilemma.” 

It’s not clear who was invited to the meeting, and the White House hasn’t given any further information.