By Jamie Ducharme
November 22, 2019

During a raucous vaping debate in the White House on Nov. 22, President Donald Trump said his administration will raise the legal age for buying e-cigarettes to 21.

Vaping executives, public-health experts and lawmakers sparred at the round-table, which Trump convened in order to weigh his options on policies that would, ideally, simultaneously limit youth use of e-cigarettes while preserving vaping industry jobs and adult access to these products, which proponents say serve as smoking-cessation tools. When groups like the trade group Vapor Technology Association suggested raising the legal age of purchase to 21, Trump indicated that his administration had already decided to do so. “Twenty-one we’re going to be doing,” he said at one point.

That solution appears to be a substitute for Trump’s Sept. 11 proposal of a plan to remove from the market all youth-friendly flavored vaping products, including mint and menthol. (Mint and menthol have often been exempted from regulations because they are used in traditional tobacco products, raising concerns that a ban on them would make users revert to combustible products.)

Trump’s announcement in September drew praise from public-health groups, who lauded the administration’s efforts to curb a youth vaping epidemic and an outbreak of vaping-related lung illnesses. It also triggered protest from vapers and industry organizations, who argued that such a policy would force vaping shops to close and potentially push e-cig users back to tobacco.

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In the following weeks, the protestors seemed to win out—no finalized policy was ever released, and media reports suggested Trump had cooled on the plan, fearing backlash from key voters. Trump tweeted on Nov. 11 that he would soon be meeting with lawmakers, doctors and vaping industry officials to talk about “children’s health & safety, together with jobs.” This week, the White House protested reports that the plan had been abandoned, maintaining that “the policy making process is not stalled.”

That meeting finally came together on Nov. 22. Among the many attendees were:

  • Utah Senator Mitt Romney
  • Juul CEO K.C. Crosthwaite
  • Altria CEO Howard Willard
  • Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids President Matt Myers
  • American Academy of Pediatrics President-Elect Sally Goza
  • Tony Abboud, executive director of the trade group Vapor Technology Association.

The meeting frequently grew heated, with public-health advocates and vaping executives going head-to-head on questions like whether e-cigarettes work for smoking cessation and if adults use flavored products to quit smoking. Even rival e-cigarette makers Juul and NJOY took shots at one another, with NJOY CEO Ryan Nivakoff noting that even after Juul has made moves to stop selling flavored pods, it still has far higher levels of youth use than NJOY. Competitors like NJOY and Vuse also argued that Juul decided to stop selling flavors as a long-game move to wait out smaller competitors, who may be driven out of business if a flavor ban goes through. Juul CEO Crosthwaite maintained that ceasing flavored sales was “the responsible thing to do as the market leader.”

Numerous public-health experts in the room said they supported a national ban on flavored e-cigs. “All of the public-health and medical organizations were united on this request,” American Lung Association CEO Harold Wimmer, who attended the meeting, tells TIME. “We are certainly hoping that [Trump] will listen to the public-health and medical organizations.”

Trump raised a number of concerns about a flavor ban at the meeting, primarily that a ban would push sales of flavored vaping products into the black market. “If you don’t give it to ’em, it’s going to come here illegally,” he said. “Instead of Reynolds or Juul or legitimate companies…they’re going to be selling stuff on the street corner that could be horrible.”

Trump did not definitively say whether a flavor ban will be enacted. “We’re going to be announcing [the administration’s decision] very soon,” he said as members of the press were ushered out of the room.

Goza, of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says it would be a mistake to abandon a plan to stop selling flavored products. “I have no problem with raising the age of purchase to 21,” she tells TIME. “But we know children as young as 8 and 9 are Juuling and vaping. The flavors are what draw them in….We have to get the flavors off the market.”

Abboud, of the Vapor Technology Association, says raising the age of purchase will have a far greater impact than a full ban. “Bans don’t work,” he says. “It is somewhat fanciful to suggest they’re going to implement a flavor ban and there will not be flavored products sold on the black market.”

So-called “Tobacco 21,” or “T21,” laws have been shown to cut down on teenagers’ ability to buy and share tobacco products, and have traditionally been supported by public health organizations. But in recent years, some groups have been uneasy that many T21 laws are backed—and in some cases even drafted—by vaping and tobacco companies. And some of these efforts have led to legislation light on enforcement and heavy on loopholes—and, perhaps more to the point, written in ways that prevent governments from implementing stricter laws in the future. A 2019 report from the American Cancer Society Action Network concluded that 51 of 88 age-of-sale bills introduced this year benefitted tobacco-industry interests.

Still, Goza says she’s optimistic about the Trump Administration’s intentions.

“The President opened up the meeting saying, ‘We have to do what’s right for children,’ and he ended the meeting saying the same thing,” she says. “To me, that’s a good sign. I’m hopeful.”

Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com.

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