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Trump administration plans to ban flavoured e-cigarettes

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Mr Trump (left) with Mr Azar in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday. The US president has announced new restrictions on the sales of non-tobacco flavoured vaping products.

Washington

THE Trump administration said on Wednesday that it would ban the sale of most flavoured e-cigarettes, at a time when hundreds of people have been sickened by mysterious lung illnesses and teenage vaping continues to rise.

Sitting in the Oval Office with the government's top health officials, President Donald Trump acknowledged that there was a vaping problem and said: "We can't allow people to get sick. And we can't have our kids be so affected."

Alex Azar, the health and human services secretary, said that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would outline a plan within the coming weeks for removing flavoured e-cigarettes and nicotine pods from the market, excluding tobacco flavours.

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The ban would include mint and menthol, popular varieties that manufacturers have argued should not be considered flavours.

The White House and the FDA have faced mounting pressure from lawmakers, public health officials, parents and educators, who have grown alarmed by the popularity of vaping among teenagers but have felt powerless to keep e-cigarettes away from students and out of schools.

This summer's startling reports of vaping-related respiratory illnesses, which now near 500 cases in nearly three dozen states and have possible links to six deaths, have only amplified concerns and renewed calls for a total ban on the largely unregulated pipeline of e-cigarette and cannabis vaping products.

Just last week, Michigan became the first state to prohibit the sale of flavoured e-cigarettes. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York also called for a ban, and Massachusetts and California are considering similar measures. San Francisco approved an e-cigarette ban earlier this year, which Juul Labs, the dominant seller in the United States, is lobbying to reverse through a ballot initiative this November.

Last year, the FDA retreated from a threat to prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes as the increased rates of teenage use took public health experts by surprise. Public outrage stoked by accusations that Juul Labs was deliberately targeting youths led the company to voluntarily stop shipping most flavoured pods, like mango and cucumber, to thousands of retail locations around the country.

Agency officials had hoped that making flavoured products less accessible would reduce teenage use of the popular devices, but instead the latest figures show another increase in youth vaping, Mr Azar said, after meeting with the president on Wednesday.

The issue appeared to hit home at the White House, where First lady Melania Trump attended the meeting with Mr Azar; Dr Ned Sharpless, the acting FDA commissioner; and the president. "She's got a son," Donald Trump said of their teenage child, Barron. "She feels very strongly about it," he added.

Juul has repeatedly denied that it aimed its products at minors, but its sleek devices have become more and more popular and are easy to conceal. And even though the company's array of flavours had disappeared from shelves, they were still available online, and a host of competitors sprouted up with look-alike versions and similar flavours to fill the vacuum. Juul had said that nearly 85 per cent of its sales were from mint and other flavours and that its decision to stop shipping them to stores had dented their sales.

On Monday, the FDA took action against Juul, sending a warning letter accusing the company of violating federal regulations by promoting its vaping products as a healthier option than cigarettes.

As for the agency's decision to prohibit most flavours, Ted Kwong, a Juul spokesman, said the company would comply. "We strongly agree with the need for aggressive category-wide action on flavoured products," he noted.

Harold Wimmer, president and chief executive of the American Lung Association, said the group had long advocated removal of products that appealed to teenagers.

"Flavours have been shown to initiate kids to tobacco use and a lifetime of addiction and tobacco-related death and disease," Mr Wimmer said. "We are anxious to review all of the details of the administration's plan."

Conservative organisations and the vaping industry had earlier joined forces to oppose other FDA proposals, including one that sought to require retailers to curb access to vaping devices, pods and other paraphernalia to keep them away from minors. Since last autumn, the agency has been working on a plan to require stores to sequester flavoured e-cigarettes in areas off-limits to minors, but that plan had seemed to falter as impractical and one that would face significant legal hurdles. This new announcement supersedes that proposal.

Since Dr Scott Gottlieb resigned as FDA commissioner in April, the agency had seemed more sluggish in its efforts to control the epidemic of youth vaping. Although Dr Sharpless had said he planned to continue the agency's work to reduce both cigarette and e-cigarette use, not much moved forward. Dr Gottlieb's proposal to ban menthol in cigarettes, for example, has languished, as has his call for reducing nicotine in cigarettes to nonaddictive levels.

But as school began around the country and the spate of illnesses sparked fear nationwide, calls for the FDA to take stronger action intensified.

Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat-Illinois, a longtime opponent of tobacco and e-cigarettes, went so far last week as to warn that he would seek Dr Sharpless' resignation if the agency failed to rid the market of e-cigarette flavours.

Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, also decided to weigh in this week by announcing a US$160 million push to ban flavoured e-cigarettes.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Vapor Technology Association, a trade group, said it opposed a flavour ban and essentially called the efforts misguided.

"More than two million Americans have died from cigarette smoking-related illnesses over the last five years," the organisation noted. "President Trump shouldn't follow the lead of San Francisco, Mike Bloomberg and the far left anti-business extremists." NYTIMES