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Trump hears opposing viewpoints in debate over youth vaping

President Donald Trump invites athletes to the Oval Office during NCAA Collegiate National Champions Day at the White House, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON, DC – President Donald Trump on Friday heard opposing viewpoints in the debate over youth vaping but offered no insight into where he would ultimately come down on the issue after promising two months ago that he would ban most flavored e-cigarettes but later backtracking.

He said the administration would announce its plan “very soon.”

“We want to take care of our kids, got to take care of our kids,” Trump told reporters after listening to more than an hour of at times robust debate among representatives from the vaping industry, the nation’s major health associations, parent advocates and business groups.

Trump backed off the proposal he announced in September after advisers told him a ban would not serve his political interests.

In Friday’s meeting, he asked most of those seated around the table in the Cabinet Room to spell out their solution.

Health groups told him they support the near-total ban on e-cigarette flavors that he promised in September.

“Our stance is very aligned with what you suggested on Sept. 11,” said Gary M. Reedy, chief executive officer of the American Cancer Society, a position shared by the American Lung Association, said its president and CEO, Harold Wimmer.

Others pressed for banning all flavors, including mint and menthol, arguing that teens will gravitate to those flavors if they remain on the market.

Other participants argued for raising the age limit for legal purchases of electronic cigarettes from 18 to 21. Trump said earlier this month that the administration will pursue such an increase. He said Friday that age would be discussed at the meeting, calling it a “big factor.”

Federal law bans sales of e-cigarettes to those under 18, but some states have pushed that to 21 — the same as with traditional cigarettes.

Industry representatives argued against banning sweet, fruity and other flavors that have proven attractive to teens, arguing that bans don’t work.

Trump seemed sympathetic to that argument as he compared a flavor ban to prohibition and suggested that such a move could lead to the creation of a black market for flavored e-cigarettes.

“If you don’t give it to them, it’s going to come here illegally,” Trump said.

Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, told Trump that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “who is no friend to your presidency,” is funding a $160 million campaign to try to ban these flavors. Conley said thousands of small business and mom-and-pop vape shops would go out of business if they are limited to just selling tobacco- and menthol-flavored e-cigarettes, and that thousands of jobs would disappear from an economy Trump describes as booming. Bloomberg is considering entering the Democratic presidential race.

Conley and others called instead for increasing the age limit to 21, limiting bulk sales of e-cigarettes and restricting their marketing.

Juul Labs, the nation’s largest e-cigarette maker, stopped selling fruit and dessert flavors, like mango and cucumber, in stores last year. The company ended online sales of those flavors in October. Earlier this month, Juul dropped popular mint sales, leaving it to sell only menthol and tobacco flavors.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said during the meeting that kids are becoming addicted to nicotine because of the flavors. E-cigarettes typically heat a solution that contains nicotine, which makes cigarettes and e-cigarettes addictive.

“It’s a health emergency,” said Romney, the co-sponsor of a bill with Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., that would ban flavored e-cigarettes and subject them to cigarette taxes, among other measures designed to curb teen vaping.

“I salute the fact that Juul has said we’re taking these products off the market because we care about our kids,” Romney said.

Tony Abboud, executive director of the Vapor Technology Association, said by telephone after the meeting that he urged the administration to adopt its “21 and Done” proposal, which calls for increasing the age limit to 21 and adopting a series of marketing restrictions.

Underage vaping has reached what health officials call epidemic levels. In the latest government survey, 1 in 4 high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the previous month.

Trump had been expected to finalize a ban on most flavored e-cigarettes earlier this month, but backed off after advisers convinced him such a step could alienate voters who would be financially or otherwise affected by a vaping ban, according to two White House and Trump campaign officials who were not authorized to publicly discuss the president’s private conversations.

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Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

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