Pleas and counsel for the Prude-in-Chief
Friday’s roundtable on vaping was one of the more interesting White House discussions on a matter of contentious public policy for a long time. Industry representatives, medicos and parents’ groups gathered amidst growing concerns in the US about deaths and illness allegedly caused by e-cigarettes. At least 50 fatalities and 2000 hospitalisations have been linked – albeit loosely at this stage – to the increasingly voguish product. Some critics want an outright ban on vaping, some a ban on flavoured e-cigarettes (thought to be enticing to minors) and some want, at the very least, a nationally imposed age restriction on sales. Participants debated the pros and cons for Donald Trump’s edification with aggressive gusto. That was a break from recent convention. Meetings chaired by the President are usually subdued, if not staged and precious.
The most interesting aspect of the debate was the known attitude of Trump himself. He is not only a lifelong teetotaler but also a lifelong non-smoker. He has never smoked a cigarette. He attributes this dual abstemiousness to the death of his alcoholic brother, Fred Trump, at 43. Fred was an aficionado of both habits. Encouraged by the First Lady – whose roving interests include the health and well-being of children and teenagers – in September the President announced a ban on flavoured e-cigarettes. Given his personal predilections, this came as no surprise and was applauded by the health lobby.
No vaping front in the war on drugs, after all
He now appears to have changed his mind. Lobbied by manufacturers who say a flavours ban will cause serious job losses and disadvantage adults who vape as a way to quit conventional smoking, he is limiting policy change to an age limit (21) on purchases. In doing so, he echoed the concern voiced by others about dangerous “counterfeit” alternatives flooding the country. Sitting alongside Trump on Friday was Mitt Romney, one of few men as puritanical regarding drugs. He pointed out that tobacco-quitting adult vapers are not interested in flavours anyway. That put the lie to the industry’s customary narrative about being in the quitting business. They are, of course, in the habit business.
Critics are already accusing the President of reversing course to placate mega-donors and a Republican base leery of commercial bans and anti-smoking scolds. The criticism is two-thirds right. There is no doubt the turn-around has a political dimension. But history has its lessons as well as its uses and only a foolhardy President scorns either. That’s the remaining third that mattered. Notwithstanding his own austerity, the President accepted the argument about the risk of bootleggers’ versions and was right to do so. Tens of thousands of Americans died from drinking “Bathtub Gin” and rotgut during Prohibition. All in all, the policy arc on vaping has been a case study in Trump’s modus operandi. As with his prison-reforming First Step Act – the nearest thing to a praised-from-all-quarters initiative during his term – Trump sought to lead boldly on a ‘social issue’ and in a liberal direction (US ‘liberals’ being as pious on smoking as he is). There followed the shouting, the enlightenment and the ‘walk-back.’ Some call it chaos but the end result here is sound policy.