On Wednesday, December 4, the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy met with Mitch Zeller, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products, to discuss the Trump administration’s proposed flavor ban, which was announced on September 11, 2019, but which has been staved off by the efforts of vaping industry representatives and hardworking vapers like you attending #WeVapeWeVote rallies.
The hearing, led by Chairman Raja Krishnamoorthi, who had earlier sent a letter to the President asking for immediate action, served primarily as a vehicle for publicity for the members of the committee to discuss vaping and its health effects, with Zeller as a backboard to bounce complaints off. Though Zeller repeatedly explained that the President was meeting with various groups before a final proposal was put forth, the members of the committee nevertheless grilled Zeller for over an hour after he completed his prepared statements.
While the President had originally announced the proposed flavor ban 90 days ago, it was with the intention of announcing a final plan within two weeks, but President Trump has wisely demurred to hear more information from industry advocates and everyday vapers, rather than making a rash decision with only the input of health professionals whose understanding of vaping is minimal.
Throughout the hearing, which can be watched here in its entirety, everyone present agreed: nicotine in all forms must be kept out of the hands of youth. The only remaining question was how best to do that, with the majority of the Congresspeople attending appearing to prefer a flavor ban - including, in some cases, mint and menthol, as Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley points out, has traditionally been used by Big Tobacco to “impos[e] a unique and deadly burden on the black community.”
Zeller remained steadfast to his message, however, which was that the conversation is ongoing. “I cannot give you a yes or no answer in an open public hearing,” Zeller said. “All I can tell you is we’re continuing to review the evidence related to flavors in all tobacco products as we try to follow the regulatory science and come up with the right policy.”
While Zeller stopped short of recognizing vaping as a possible smoking cessation aid - a position the FDA must have proven to them before they’re allowed to hold it - he did recognize this is not a simple issue. “It’s an easy call on the negative side of the ledger when it comes to the role that flavors are playing in attracting kids to experiment, especially kids who are walking around thinking that these are harmless products,” explained Zeller. “But it’s a balancing act because we have heard repeatedly from former smokers that it was the presence of certain flavors that helped them successfully transition completely away from cigarettes.”
Though no one else appeared to, Zeller made a clear distinction between injuries due to Vitamin E acetate in THC vapes, and the nicotine-containing e-liquid actually being discussed. Zeller attempted to make clear to all present that e-cigarettes and vapes containing nicotine were not implicated in this summer’s rash of respiratory illnesses, but rather black-market THC cartridges.
One thing was made extremely clear, as various members of Congress pressured Zeller for answers: it has absolutely been the voices of vapers everywhere that have fended off this flavor ban, and that frustrates proponents of the ban. Senator Maggie Hassan summed up their view: “There has been a lot of delay. We are looking for a strategy, and we are looking for you guys to move through your deliberations.” But this delay is necessary so that the best possible decision can be made. As Zeller himself said, “We are in a deliberative process. The White House made an announcement in September, and we are working to advance a policy consistent with taking steps to do everything that we can to protect kids from these products.”