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US FDA plans to ban most e-cigarette flavours except menthol: officials

New York

THE Trump administration is expected to announce later this week that it will ban mint-, fruit- and dessert-flavoured e-cigarette cartridges popular with teenagers, but allow menthol and tobacco flavours to remain on the market.

Flavoured liquid nicotine used in open tank systems can continue to be sold, according to two administration officials who have been briefed on the plan. It is an important concession to vape shops that have thrived alongside the booming e-cigarette business in recent years.

US President Donald Trump acknowledged late Tuesday that the ban would be announced "very shortly". But he indicated that it might be short-lived and he didn't say which flavours were involved.

"We think we are going to get back in the market very, very quickly," he said at a New Year's Eve news conference during a party at his Mar-a-Lago resort. "We have a very big industry. We're going to take care of the industry."

The administration's decision is a partial retreat from a commitment it made in September to quickly devise a ban of all flavours except those that tasted like tobacco. Its plan to exempt menthol appeared to be an effort to dodge a bruising legal battle with the tobacco industry, and also reflected intense lobbying by the vaping industry.

Administration officials also pointed to data that showed teenagers aren't choosing menthol-flavoured pods or cartridges.

Public health said the government would be making a good start in banning flavours most alluring to youths. But they said they feared teenagers would switch to menthol rather than quit vaping.

"Flavours attract kids, and menthol is a flavor," said Erika Sward, a spokeswoman for the American Lung Association. "It really helps to numb the senses and makes the poison go down easier." Mr Trump's hesitation to put in place a full ban has become increasingly clear in recent months. In a televised White House meeting in November, he said he was concerned that a full ban would drive people seeking flavours to unsafe, illicit products. And his advisers, including Brad Parscale, his re-election campaign manager, have warned him that a flavour ban would hurt him with his base and could depress turnout in battleground states.

Tobacco and vaping companies have lobbied lawmakers and the White House against banning flavours, including menthol. They have argued that adult smokers need e-cigarette options to help them switch from cigarettes - and that because 35 per cent of cigarettes sold are menthol brands, taking menthol flavours off the market would pose a hardship for those smokers trying to quit.

The companies also say that a full flavour ban would put thousands of vape shops out of business.

Industry lobbyists seeking to protect flavours were joined by conservative organisations like Americans for Tax Reform, which opposed regulatory limits that they said would harm the small businesses that manufacture vaping flavours, retailers that sell them and adult consumers of e-cigarettes.

Juul, which dominates the e-cigarette business, has largely stayed out of the fray amid public backlash over its role in the soaring rise of teenage vaping. Facing vociferous and legal opposition from parents, schools and public health experts, the company voluntarily took its fruit- and dessert-flavoured products off the market, and has lost business to competitors selling flavours popular with teenagers, like mixed berry, watermelon and mango.

Competitors have also been selling "Juul-alikes", nicotine pods that fit Juul's devices in flavours like Strawberry Milk and Peach Madness.

Earlier efforts to restrict sales of flavoured e-cigarettes stalled even as the popularity of vaping nicotine grew among millions of young people. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first sought to ban sales of flavours during the Obama administration, but was rebuffed by the White House after fierce lobbying by tobacco companies and retail shops.

The current debate over a flavour ban was set off by twin public health crises - soaring rates of youth vaping that experts feared was getting a new generation addicted to nicotine, and the recent spate of severe lung injuries largely related to vaping THC, the high-inducing ingredient in marijuana. More than 2,500 people have been hospitalised since mid-August and more than 54 people have died.

The new restrictions on flavours will not extend to THC-vaping products, which are mainly regulated by states that have legalised marijuana.

Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, had announced in September after meeting Mr Trump and his wife, Melania, that the FDA would draft a ban on almost all e-cigarette flavours, including mint and menthol. At the time, Mr Azar said those two flavours appeared to be popular with teenagers, especially since Juul had pulled its fruit and dessert flavours from shelves.

A more recent survey found mint was far more popular than menthol with teenagers, but public health experts say teenagers will switch to menthol - which creates a cooling sensation - if all other flavours, including mint and mango, are taken off the market.

Juul, the nation's largest seller of e-cigarettes, has been the target of public and regulatory scrutiny over whether it marketed its products to lure teenagers and young adults to use them. Several investigations are underway into its sales and promotion practices.

Some states have already imposed flavour bans, though some of those efforts have been forestalled because of legal challenges waged by the vaping industry and its tobacco company partners.

In anticipation of a national ban, Juul had taken most of its flavours off the market. Until recently, mint-flavoured products made up about 70 per cent of its sales, menthol was 10 per cent, while tobacco flavours accounted for 20 per cent. NYTIMES