Trump Warns a Flavor Ban Would Spawn Counterfeit Vaping Products

WASHINGTON — Two months after announcing that he planned to ban the sale of most flavored e-cigarettes, President Trump on Friday once again raised concerns about such restrictions during a lively, televised White House meeting that brought together top executives from the health community and the tobacco and vaping industries.

“If you don’t give it to them, it’s going to come here illegally,” Mr. Trump said of flavored products, referring to how a “prohibition” would only increase the use of black-market products. “That’s the one problem I can’t seem to forget,” he said. “You just have to look at the history of it. Now, instead of having a flavor that’s at least safe, they’re going to be having a flavor that’s poison.”

But e-cigarettes have been on the market for more than a decade, at least, and have grown increasingly popular, with little scientific evidence or oversight to prove they are safe. Meanwhile, teenage vaping has spiraled out of control, with more than one-fourth of high school students who were surveyed reporting this year that they had used e-cigarettes within the previous 30 days, prompting concerns that a new generation is becoming hooked on nicotine.

The vaping round table on Friday afternoon brought together a diverse group of advocates and lobbyists on different sides of the issue, including Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and one of the most vocal vaping critics; K.C. Crosthwaite, the new chief executive of Juul Labs; Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, a trade group; and Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, who has been pushing for a nationwide flavor ban.

During the hourlong meeting, which was scheduled to be closed to the press but which Mr. Trump instead conducted in front of television cameras, the president tried to play the role of open-minded moderator, asking, “So what would you do?” and appearing to take in all of the information with an open mind.

“Tell me about lungs, come on,” Mr. Trump said at one point.

Throughout, he circled back to his main concern that counterfeit products from China and Mexico would replace those made by “legitimate companies” like Juul Labs, the San Francisco-based company that is this nation’s largest seller of e-cigarettes. “Won’t they just be made illegally?” Mr. Trump said.

Later in the meeting, Mr. Trump asked: “How do you solve the fact that it’s going to be shipped in from Mexico? It’s a problem. You have the same problem with drugs, and everything else.”

He also asked for information about letting states make their own decisions. (Several states already have imposed flavor bans, some of which are tied up in court by legal challenges from the vaping industry. Just this week, a majority of the New York City Council agreed on a ban on flavored and menthol e-cigarettes. A vote is set for next week.)

In mounting a case against the flavor ban, Mr. Conley appealed to Mr. Trump’s competitive instincts, noting that Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor contemplating a presidential bid against him, has been spending tens of millions of dollars on a multistate campaign to ban flavored products.

Vaping advocates also appealed to Mr. Trump’s ego, noting that his “instincts were correct” in September, when he first announced the proposed ban, but adding that the facts of the public health crisis had changed since then. The outbreak of lung illnesses — now afflicting nearly 3,000 people and killing 47 — has largely been attributed to THC-based products, some of which contained the additive vitamin E acetate, not store-bought nicotine products.

Public health advocates, meanwhile, tried to make Mr. Trump understand the severity of the other public health crisis — teen vaping — telling him that he had the opportunity to “save a generation from addiction.”

In one heated exchange, Mr. Romney, who was seated to the right of Mr. Trump, noted that “most adults are not using flavors” and that those products were targeting and addicting youth vapers.

“Putting out cotton candy flavor and unicorn poop flavor, this is kid product,” Mr. Romney said. “We have to put the kids first.”

But vaping leaders shot back at him that “yes,” adult users trying to find an alternative to traditional cigarettes also use flavored products.

“Utah is a Mormon state, and half the kids in high school are vaping,” Mr. Romney said.

Mr. Trump did reiterate on Friday that his administration would support raising the age for sales of e-cigarettes to 21, a move that would require congressional approval.

Afterward, supporters of a flavor ban said they were hopeful that Mr. Trump had heard them, despite his overall skepticism that a ban would not be effective.

“The president asked a lot of questions, and I don’t think anybody could predict from his questions or his response what he will do,” said Mr. Myers, of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

But he noted that Mr. Trump did not offer a time frame for any decision. Top advisers to Mr. Trump had pushed him to organize the meeting, hoping to delay indefinitely any action on an issue they believe will have a negative effect on his 2020 re-election campaign.

In an interview on CNBC on Friday, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said he thought the administration was legitimately concerned about the economic effects on the thousands of vape shops that have sprung up around the country and predicted that the businesses might get a carve-out from any initiative aimed at restricting flavors. Mr. Trump and his advisers have mentioned the jobs created by the industry in earlier remarks.

On a flight on Nov. 4, Mr. Trump was swayed by advisers who warned him of political repercussions to any sweeping restrictions, and he decided to cancel an announcement the administration had been expected to make the next day.

Mr. Trump on Friday said he was considering having the group return to the White House for a second meeting, according to Harold Wimmer, chief executive of the American Lung Association.

And he left the meeting telling the group to work together to get him a deal, according to another attendee.