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House votes to ban flavored tobacco to curb youth vaping epidemic

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, heads to meet with fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 5, 2020.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, heads to meet with fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 5, 2020. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The House on Friday passed legislation to ban the manufacturing and sale of flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco, a far-reaching step to combat a youth vaping epidemic that had ensnared 5 million teenagers.

The vote was 213 to 195 on legislation that divided House Democrats and drew opposition from Republicans.

In light of the vaping epidemic, the main target of the bill is flavored e-cigarettes, but it also would ban menthol cigarettes and cigar flavors while prohibiting the online sales of e-cigarettes.

The fate of the bill is uncertain in the Senate.

Passage of the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2019 comes months after President Trump backed off a comprehensive ban on most flavored e-cigarettes, a move that had been favored by first lady Melania Trump.

The president reversed course amid warnings about job losses and the possibility that economic woes tied to the ban would undermine his reelection prospects, according to White House and campaign officials.

His administration instead implemented a scaled-back ban on Feb. 6 that prohibited sales of most flavored cartridge-based e-cigarettes. Menthol- and tobacco-flavored pods aren’t affected by that ban, nor are single-use disposable vapes or bottled e-liquids for the open-tank systems typically sold in vape shops.

Trump backs off flavored vape ban he once touted

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), split House Democrats — including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who slammed the bill for its ban on menthol cigarettes, which are especially popular among African American smokers. Other Democrats raised concerns about restrictions on hookah, a method of smoking popular in Middle Eastern communities, as well as the fact that high-end cigars were carved out of a ban on online tobacco sales but not products used by less-affluent smokers.

Among those opposing the bill was House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), which forced House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) to mount a crash effort to win votes for the bill on Thursday and Friday.

“There’s no equity in this,” said Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.), one of the CBC members opposed to the bill. “If we’re talking about it being a public health issue, something that we’re really, really, really concerned about, then you ban smoking, period, full stop.”

Clarke and other Democrats — joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Drug Policy Alliance, the National Action Network and other groups — argued that the bill could leave minority communities vulnerable to “overpolicing” by encouraging a black market in menthol cigarettes and other banned products. Many have raised the case of Eric Garner, the New York City man who was killed by a police officer who sought to arrest him for illegally selling loose cigarettes in 2014.

“Blacks and other people of color should not disproportionately bear the brunt of enforcement of such prohibitions, which a menthol ban would ensure,” the groups said in a letter this week to Pallone.

Numerous medical and civil rights groups supported the bill, however, including the NAACP, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Medical Association and National Black Nurses Association — something that Pelosi and other Democrats supporting the bill pointed out Friday.

New FDA chief vows tougher action on youth vaping if needed

“The message that we’re sending is that for poor communities, communities with less franchise that tend to be overpoliced, we’re going to add an extra burden to you,” Clarke said. “It’s a health concern for the entire nation, for the smoking population on the whole. But we’re not going to address that. We’re going to go after a particular segment, albeit smaller but more vulnerable to law enforcement abuse.”

Five Republicans broke ranks and backed the bill, while 17 Democrats opposed the measure, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus and moderate lawmakers from Virginia, Utah and New York.

During House debate on the measure, Pelosi said “corporations are waging a brazen special interests campaign to addict our children to e-cigarettes” and urged support for the measure to protect the nation’s children.

Pallone said tobacco companies promote flavors such as menthol or mango to “make people think they are not tobacco products, they are not nicotine. . . . We need to ban flavors across the board.”

Republican opponents cast the bill as government overreach and question why the legislation did not address marijuana use.

“This is not a public response to an epidemic,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.).

Rep. Ron Estes (R-Kan.) pointed out that Congress has already raised the age to buy tobacco products to 21 and criticized the measure for “eliminating the choice for law-abiding adults.”

Proponents of the House bill cited reports from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found a 78 percent increase in current e-cigarette use by high school students and 48 percent increase among middle school students from 2017 to 2018.

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