The outbreak of severe lung illnesses linked to vaping just blew past a grim milestone. Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the number of people who have become ill has topped 2,000. The death toll now stands at 39.
President Donald Trump took a strong step in September when he proposed a ban on all non-tobacco e-cigarette flavors to protect young Americans from getting hooked on these harmful products. Now, he needs to stay the course, not succumb to pressure to weaken the measure as it moves closer to reality.
Backlash from the vape industry and enthusiasts has led Trump’s campaign manager to push for softening the ban, such as by allowing the continued sale of menthol or mint products. A different loophole is also apparently under consideration: allowing vape stores to sell flavored e-cig pods.
Neither makes sense. Allowing vape shops to sell flavors gives them an unfair advantage over other retailers. Vape shops also have a poor record compared to other sellers of checking purchasers’ age, according to a recent study published in a medical journal.
Allowing the sale of mint or menthol, a flavor that also delivers a cool sensation, is a mistake, too. “Eliminating menthol from conventional and electronic cigarettes is critical to prevent youth initiation, as it is well known within the industry that this is the flavor preferred by the vast majority of teen ‘starters,’ ” said Dr. Richard Hurt, a retired Mayo Clinic smoking-cessation specialist.
Knowing this casts a dubious light on a recent move by Juul, which dominates the e-cig industry. The company announced last week that it will voluntarily stop selling mint “pods” for e-cigs. But it didn’t say it’s willing to stop selling menthol. It’s likely that new users will just switch to this e-cig flavor instead. Who benefits? Juul, even as it tries to cloak its motive by the public relations spin on ending mint sales.
Trump’s former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, rightly sounded the alarm about the rapid rise in vaping among teens. He and other public health officials have correctly dubbed it an epidemic. “During 2017-2018, e-cigarette use increased 77.8% (from 11.7% to 20.8%) among high school students and 48.5% (from 3.3% to 4.9%) among middle school students,” according to report released in February by the CDC.
Trump’s willingness to tackle this growing health threat won praise from parents and public health advocates. Nicotine, which e-cigs deliver in a water vapor, is highly addictive and can harm adolescent brain development. The vapor can also contain heavy metals and other harmful chemicals.
While it appears the lung illnesses are most likely linked to another ingredient in the products, the risks of vaping are still unknown. It lacks a traditional cigarette’s combustion but that doesn’t make it safe, which is why the Trump administration still needs to take action to protect kids.
Softening the ban would make Trump look like he bowed to wealthy special interests. There’s no reason to give an inch.