Amid increased attention on e-cigarette bans, vaping advocates turn to 2020 election

Advocacy groups push political arguments for and against e-cig bans.

October 01, 2019, 7:15 PM

As the Trump administration moves to finalize a plan to remove flavored e-cigarette products from the market in response to an epidemic of young people using the products, advocacy groups on both sides of the debate are ramping up the politics around the issue.

Advocacy groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids are urging a strong public health response to stop teenagers from experimenting with and becoming addicted to nicotine, but groups that represent adults that vape argue too much regulation could hurt their businesses or even drive adults back to traditional cigarettes.

Both argue the issue could be important for President Donald Trump as he seeks voters' support in the 2020 election.

PHOTO: Mark Asbrock, of Fairfield, Ohio, vapes while listening to speakers during a vaping advocates rally, Oct. 1, 2019, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio.
Mark Asbrock, of Fairfield, Ohio, vapes while listening to speakers during a vaping advocates rally, Oct. 1, 2019, at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio.
Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch via AP

Katy Talento, a former White House adviser who worked on health policy, said the push to ban flavored vaping products isn't political but motivated by increasing numbers of young people vaping nicotine.

"You cannot extract this issue from the politics, of course, but I truly think there were no political considerations I know there were no political considerations in how the FDA's handled this," she said.

Talento said that while most conservatives think government "nannying" is almost never appropriate it is necessary when it comes to protecting kids' health, including preventing them from taking up nicotine products that could lead them to dangerous traditional cigarettes. Part of the debate about the federal action to remove flavored products from the market is whether it includes all flavors like mint and menthol, which attract younger users.

Vaping industry groups argue flavors are also popular among adults who see e-cigarettes as less harmful to traditional cigarettes and say they don't support broad bans on flavored products, but would support changes to make it harder for teenagers to get them like raising the legal age to buy tobacco and restricting products to adult-only shops.

Federal health surveys found that about 3.7% of adults reported using e-cigarettes regularly in 2014, according to the most recent data on adults from the Centers for Disease Control.

More high school students reported using e-cigarettes on a daily basis in 2019, according to more recent data. A survey from the National Institutes of Health found 11.7% of high school seniors report daily e-cigarette use, compared to 6.9% of sophomores and 1.9% of eighth graders.

"We can't lose a generational reduction in smoking, we can't see it reversed," she said, adding "Republicans always want to allow for the maximum amount of freedom but the data just can't be denied."

An ABC News/Time Magazine poll in 2004 found Americans were split on the government's role in addressing cigarette smoking. In that survey 42% of respondents said the federal government was doing enough to address cigarette smoking, 42% said it wasn't doing enough and 14% said the government was doing too much.

Groups like Americans for Tax Reform, a group that opposes what they see as government overreach and excessive taxation, say adult e-cigarette users don't support additional restrictions or taxes. Americans for Tax Reform has received multiple six-figure donations from various tobacco companies over the last two decades.

In addition to being against additional taxes, many e-cigarette or vape users are passionate about the products as a lifestyle issue, saying they replaced more harmful traditional cigarettes, said Paul Blair, director of strategic initiatives with Americans for Tax Reform. He said his group is working to organize both vape users and vape shop owners who have protested restrictions on their products on the state level.

“They feel deeply passionate about the products they sell to adults because they experienced their success in being able to quit smoking,” he said.

He added "the passion of these people is so much stronger than the general preferences of suburban women, which I think the White House might be concerned about."

PHOTO: Vaping advocates chant "I Vape, I Vote" during a rally, Oct. 1, 2019 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio.
Vaping advocates chant "I Vape, I Vote" during a rally, Oct. 1, 2019 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio.
Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch via AP

But groups that advocate for restricting access to tobacco products say while they expect industry groups to lobby against or sue to block any additional regulations, parents on both sides of the political spectrum want the government to step in and ban flavors to prevent kinds from accessing e-cigarettes.

"This is an issue that doing the right thing is politically popular no matter what your party affiliation is, no matter how much spin these other companies will put on it," Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said.

Myers said his organization is working with parent groups around the country to pressure the administration to follow through on its proposed ban of flavored e-cigarettes and push back on industry lobbying that flavors should stay on the market for adults.

"They have the authority to act and they have the authority not to cave in. And given how overwhelmingly popular the proposal is it would be the ultimate example of a special interest, a narrow special interest with very limited voting base, getting its way," he said.

PHOTO: A woman smokes a Juul e-cigarette in this posed picture, Sept. 16, 2018.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters, FILE

Myers said his group believes the federal government could have stopped many teenagers from trying e-cigarettes by restricting flavored products under the Obama administration, so they'll be carefully watching to see if the Trump administration follows through on its promise to restrict flavors, including whether that will include mint and menthol.

"This is the ultimate test, this is a crisis that occurred because the industry was successful in preventing the government from moving forward," he said.

There is some indication that the message is getting through to Trump's re-election campaign. When he announced the administration would move to ban flavored e-cigarettes Trump cited First Lady Melania Trump's concern about the issue, saying "A lot of people think vaping is wonderful and it is great. It is not wonderful."

But just days later the president appeared to walk that statement back, tweeting he likes vaping as an alternative to cigarettes but wants to keep the products away from children and eliminate counterfeits.

Trump's campaign manager Brad Parscale repeated the statement in response to another user that expressed concern the administration would ban vapes.

The Food and Drug Administration is set to release its plan on how it will remove flavored e-cigarette products from the market in the coming weeks.

ABC News' Soorin Kim contributed to this report.

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