The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump backs off his flavored vape ban — for exactly the reason he said he wouldn’t

After promising to ban most flavored e-cigarettes, President Trump has reportedly backed off the ban. Here is what he has said previously on vaping. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

It’s hardly a surprise that President Trump is backing off his previously announced flavored vape ban. The whole thing seemed rather haphazard at the time, and he’s no stranger to such reversals. He was going to get tough on guns before he didn’t. He was going to do a full and immediate Syria withdrawal, until he wasn’t. His administration is pockmarked with officials around Trump having to adjust to his whims, only to see the whims soon fade to the background, along with the policies lodged to satisfy them.

But few things have epitomized this trend like the flavored vape ban. And what’s notable here is that Trump seems to be backing down not for reasons of public health, but for political ones — which, it bears emphasizing, is precisely what he said he would not do.

When Trump announced the ban in September, he did so alongside Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and acting Food and Drug Administration head Norman “Ned” Sharpless. The three of them discussed how dangerous vaping was — especially for children — and said they would ban every flavor except regular tobacco.

Toward the end of the news conference, though, it was pointed out to Trump that vaping is big business and that there could be economic costs to cracking down on something that had quickly become so popular.

Trump, however, insisted he was standing on principle (key parts bolded):

Q: Mr. President, about your announcement today, are you concerned that the companies that were making these products will be treated unfairly by taking more of these products off the market?
TRUMP: Well, they’ve become very rich companies very fast. And the whole thing with vaping is a — it’s been very profitable. And I want companies; look, you know that. I fight for our companies very hard. . . .
Vaping has become a very big business, as I understand it -- like a giant business in a very short period of time. But we can’t allow people to get sick, and we can’t have our youth be so affected. And I’m hearing it. And that’s how the first lady got involved. I mean, she’s got a son, together, that is a beautiful, young man, and she feels very, very strongly about it. She’s seen it. We’re both reading it. A lot of people are reading it. But people are dying with vaping.
So we’re looking at it very closely. And, you know, if nothing else, this is a conference that’s going to let people know about it, because people are going to watch what we’re saying. And parents are going to be a lot tougher with respect to their children.
A lot of people think vaping is wonderful, it’s great. It’s really not wonderful. That’s one thing, I think, we can say definitely, Commissioner. It’s not a wonderful thing. It’s got big problems. We have to find out the extent of the problem. It’s so new. It’s so new. But we’re going to find out.
And I hope that parents that — you know, they have children, and the children are a certain age — I hope they’re going to be able to make wise decisions, maybe based on what we’re saying today. But the dommissioner and Alex Azar, they’re going to be coming back over the next pretty short period of time, couple of weeks, with some very strong recommendations.

The initial pushback on the flavored vape ban focused on the fact that the vast majority of deaths and illnesses were traced not to commercially sold nicotine products, but to illicit products containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. An eventual study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late October found that 85 percent of people who fell ill reported using THC-containing products, often bought on the black market, versus about 10 percent who said they exclusively used nicotine products.

But those new health data apparently aren’t the reason for Trump’s about-face; politics are. While the initial thought was that it might help Trump with suburban moms, his campaign manager Brad Parscale has been cautioning him that it could actually backfire, particularly in key 2020 states, by alienating those who use the product. And The Post reported Sunday that Trump has come to fear the job losses that could be created, which could undermine his economic case for reelection. The situation culminated in Trump canceling a planned Nov. 5 announcement of the official policy the night before, after getting advised against it on the way to a campaign rally in Kentucky.

None of this is to say that this was always a political gambit; it’s possible, as Trump said in September, that he was swayed by concerns about fast-growing use of vaping products by minors and a growing health crisis whose underlying facts were only then coming into focus. Perhaps that was the true motivation, rather than the suburban moms thing.

But for all the talk about a principled decision he was making, those principles appear to have taken a back seat to his reelection. Whatever the merits of the ban, Trump is apparently taking something he insisted was an urgent public-health need and is backing off it for political reasons.

It’s almost as if they should have done their due diligence on the front end before announcing such a drastic step. But with Trump, it’s often shoot first, aim later.