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 MurrayConservative groups aim to sink bipartisan fix to 'surprise' medical bills Democrats request briefing on intel behind Trump's embassy threat claim Democrats ask if US citizens were detained at border checkpoints due to Iranian national origin 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 KaineIran resolution supporters fear impeachment will put it on back burner House war powers sponsor expects to take up Senate version of resolution Sens. Kaine, Lee: 'We should not be at war with Iran unless Congress authorizes it' 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 TrumpTrump rails against impeachment in speech to Texas farmers Trump administration planning to crack down on 'birth tourism': report George Conway on Trump adding Dershowitz, Starr to legal team: 'Hard to see how either could help' 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 ConwayGeorge Conway on Trump adding Dershowitz, Starr to legal team: 'Hard to see how either could help' White House pushes back on Parnas allegations Trump suggests LBJ is in hell: 'He's probably looking down — or looking up' 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 MurkowskiMurkowski wants senators to 'really hear the case' before deciding on impeachment witnesses Republicans will pay on Election Day for politicizing Trump's impeachment GOP threatens to weaponize impeachment witnesses amid standoff 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.