In a televised address on September 11, 2019, President Donald Trump dropped a bombshell on the U.S. vaping industry by announcing his intention to ban e-liquid across the country in all flavors except tobacco. The stated reasons behind the ban were twofold. First, a terrible lung illness relating to vaping had just begun to sweep across the country, and health officials didn’t yet understand that the illness was caused by the use of illegal cannabis products rather than legal nicotine products. Second, it had become obvious by 2019 that underage use of vaping products had taken hold across the country and wasn’t going to resolve itself any time soon. Members of the federal government felt that, without direct action, the number of teen vapers would only continue to grow.
What happened next was a firestorm that no one in the Trump administration – not even Trump himself – could ever have predicted.
Trump Underestimates the Importance of Vaping Voters
The first sign that President Trump potentially made a grave mistake on September 11 came in the form of widespread reports suggesting that Trump’s allies in the Republican party were unhappy about the proposed e-liquid flavor ban. As it turned out, Trump had failed to consider the number of people he’d be offending – and more importantly, where those people lived – before proposing the ban. In the 2016 Presidential election, Trump won by extremely narrow margins in key battleground states such as Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Georgia. The margins were smaller, in fact, than the populations of people who vape in those states.
Many of those who vape claim that they will vote based on that issue alone and will vote against anyone who limits their access to vaping products. If what those people say is true, banning all flavored e-liquids could easily lead to a loss of support in the battleground states in which Trump won in 2016 – and that could easily ruin Trump’s bid for reelection in 2020.
Trump largely went silent on the vaping issue after his September 11 announcement. News reports suggested that Trump hadn’t been aware before the announcement of the impact that a total e-liquid flavor ban would have on his support among voters or on small businesses across America. The loss of the country’s vape shops would also mean the loss of tens of thousands of jobs – not exactly the kind of event that Makes America Great Again.
Trump Administration Proposes a Compromise on the Vaping Issue
By the end of 2019, news reports suggested that the possibility of an all-out ban on all flavored e-liquids was no longer on the table. By that time, President Trump had met with representatives from the vaping and tobacco industries along with various public health advocates. The meetings gave Trump a better understanding of the impact that a flavor ban would have on the economy and on his support among adult vapers. In addition, it was very clear by then that the vaping-related lung illness had nothing to do with commercial nicotine e-liquid products.
In the end, the Trump administration did two things in an attempt to curb teen vaping.
- The federal government raised the minimum age nationwide for buying tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21. That was done with the goal of preventing 18-year-old students from buying things like JUUL pods and giving them to younger students.
- The FDA removed all pre-filled vape pods and cartridges in flavors other than tobacco and menthol from the market. Bottled e-liquid for refillable vaping devices remained legal in all flavors. Teen vapers overwhelmingly prefer the JUUL e-cigarette brand – which uses pre-filled pods – and in surveys, underage vapers have said that sweet flavors are a major part of what attracts them to vaping. In removing those products from the market, the government hopes that vaping will become less attractive to teens.
The government conducts a yearly survey of students to gauge the effectiveness of its tobacco control policies. The results of that survey are released around the end of the year. As of late 2019, more than 5 million teens – about 27.5 percent of high school students and 10.5 percent of middle school students – reported vaping regularly. We will find out in late 2020 whether the government’s new policies have done anything to reduce teen nicotine use.
How Will Vaping Influence the 2020 Presidential Election?
In a private Oval Office meeting in early 2020, President Trump reportedly expressed regret over his involvement in federal vaping policy. Supposedly, he said that he “never should have done that [expletive] vaping thing.”
The reason for Trump’s unhappiness, however, has nothing to do with the infringement on vapers’ rights or the impact that the government’s policies may have on small business. The problem is that Trump unwittingly made himself the face of those policies when he could have easily left the decisions to Congress and the FDA and let others handle the political fallout.
The government’s new vaping policies are a compromise, and a compromise means that none of the stakeholders are completely happy. On one side, Trump is dealing with angry adult vapers who are upset over the lack of respect for their rights and angry about the fact that the government opted to punish everyone instead of going after the individual companies that obviously stepped over the line and marketed their products inappropriately.
On the other side, Trump is dealing with angry tobacco control activists who believe that the government’s new policies haven’t gone far enough – and, in terms of combating teen vaping, they are probably correct. Teens might say that the flavors the flavors of the products have enticed them to vape, but that isn’t really true. Youth-oriented marketing enticed those teens to vape, and the extremely high nicotine strengths of products like JUUL kept them coming back. Banning flavored pods isn’t going to stop teens from vaping when they’re already addicted to nicotine.
Tobacco control has always been a contentious topic, and the teen vaping issue is not going away. If President Trump loses his bid for reelection in 2020, it’s entirely possible that it’ll be because he “did that vaping thing.”