Trump wants to ban flavored vapes, but that might just worsen the vaping lung injury crisis

President Donald Trump talks to Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar about a plan to ban most flavored e-cigarettes, in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, September 11, 2019. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

At least 380 people across the US have been rushed to the hospital after vaping and subsequently suffering from mysterious lung injuries, according to the CDC. Six others are dead.

President Trump said last Wednesday he wants to ban flavored vapes completely to combat this growing public health crisis.

“People are dying from vaping,” he said, announcing his plan to ban flavored vape pods like mango, wild cherry, and cotton candy across the US. “It’s really not wonderful.”

But it’s not clear how much a ban on vaping flavours would affect the crisis, if such a ban even takes effect.

Read More: Vaping is leading to a spate of lung injuries, comas, and death. Lung experts say oils like vitamin E may be partially to blame.

Teenagers love fruit-flavored vapes, but it’s not clear a ban would solve that problem

Trump hinted at parental concerns about his youngest son when he announced the proposed flavour ban.

“That’s how the First Lady got involved,” he said. “She’s got a son, together. That is a beautiful young man, and she feels very, very strongly about it.”

Trump vaping melania has a son
First lady Melania Trump listens as President Donald Trump talks about a plan to ban most flavored e-cigarettes, in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, September 11, 2019, in Washington. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Barron Trump (who is also President Trump’s son) is 13 years old. If he’s anything like most American teens, he’s heard of the popular vape brand Juul, and he knows exactly what vaping is.

In 2018, one in five high schoolers surveyed across the US said they’d vaped in the past 30 days, as well as 1 in 20 middle schoolers. Most teens say they prefer fruit, menthol, mint, and candy vapes.

“Flavours today are problematic,” Juul CEO Kevin Burns told the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board. Yet his company spent years on flashy ads featuring attractive young people, and footed the bill for launch parties filled with youthful selfie-snappers too.

Flavored vapes are already available on the street

The FDA “intends to finalise a compliance policy in the coming weeks” that would theoretically eliminate non-tobacco flavored e-cigarettes. (The policy appears to be building on flavour restrictions former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb outlined in March.) But it could be the case that teens will look elsewhere for their beloved flavours – some already do.

Juul generally only sells its own fruity flavour pods on the company’s website, but that doesn’t stop young people from finding other vape flavours in shops, on the street, or from friends.

One black market THC vape brand called “Dank Vapes” is tied to an alarming number of the recent lung illnesses. Nicotine-only flavored vapes (either do-it-yourself mixes or cartridges from international sellers) could easily flood the black market if the Trump ban takes effect.

Adam Hergenreder, an 18 year-old from Illinois, told CNN he started vaping with mango Juuls before he moved on to vaping THC, getting his stash through “a friend” or dealer.Hergenreder is now suing Juul.

Lawyer Rick Meadow, whose firm is taking on a different teenager’s lawsuit against Juul, isn’t convinced that a flavour ban would do much to combat the teen vaping crisis.

“If there’s a market for it, somebody’s going to come through with it,” Meadow told Insider. “When has a ban really worked for anything? It just makes it a little more enticing.”

A nicotine vape crackdown didn’t work as well as planned in Europe

In Europe, nicotine in electronic cigarettes is already regulated, with a maximum nicotine concentration of 20 mg/mL and vape cartridge volume capped at 10 mL, measures meant to make the amount of nicotine available on par with cigarettes.

That regulation didn’t take in to account the health dangers posed by some of the high-wattage devices people can use, so it is largely meaningless for lung health. (At least one vaping-related lung injury was reported last year in the UK, which adheres to the European rule.)

The vaping illnesses aren’t tied to any specific brand or substance

There’s also no clear evidence that the lung injuries and deaths reported in the US are tied to any specific brand or substance, flavours included. Both nicotine and THC vapers alike have been affected.

One small study of 31 healthy adults released by the University of Pennsylvania last month suggested that some of the “harmless” oils like propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin (PG-VG) inside vape pens might undergo dangerous transformations as they heat up and aerosolize inside vape pens, potentially turning them into toxic substances. Regulators and health experts just don’t fully understand what concoction is triggering the worrisome lung conditions yet.

“The best regulations are those that are most informed by science,” Professor Thomas Eissenberg at the Virginia Commonwealth University Centre for the Study of Tobacco Products told Insider.

Whether a ban on flavored e-cigarettes would change American vaping habits (or health) is still an open question, but it would certainly deal a blow to the bottom line of companies like Juul, which get around 85% of sales from flavored products, according to the New York Times. There are already reports that Juul is pushing to get its mint and menthol flavours exempted from any eventual e-cigarette flavour ban.

None of this may matter if the US flavour ban fails to become law. A proposed ban on menthol cigarettes the FDA announced in late 2018 is still not on the books.

“It’s not going to happen,” Meadow said.