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'Los Angeles Times' Investigation Shows How Vaping Crisis Could Have Been Prevented


Every day now, it seems we hear doctors warning about vaping, particularly among young people, and governments weighing bans on vape products. A Los Angeles Times investigation now makes clear this crisis could have been prevented.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned back in 2015 that e-cigarettes with flavors like cherry and cotton candy were particularly attractive to children and could be dangerous in and of themselves. The agency drafted a rule that included a ban on flavored products and then sent it off to the White House for approval.

LA Times reporter Emily Baumgaertner explains what happened next.

EMILY BAUMGAERTNER: The draft went into the White House including a flavor ban, and it came out without that flavor ban. It also came out without 15 pages of evidence that detailed exactly why those flavors were so dangerous for children.

MARTIN: And what did your reporting indicate about - do we know what happened there?

BAUMGAERTNER: We learned that more than a hundred lobbyists and advocates came to the White House in about a 45-day span. What's interesting here is that you see some of the representation coming from vaping companies, vaping groups, even small businesses, but you also see big tobacco companies arriving.

So you have companies like Altria, a tobacco giant, that sent four representatives right in the middle of this decision-making process. Altria, several years later, went on to buy a 35% stake in the company Juul, which was the most popular e-cigarette among teens. So you certainly see representation from the tobacco companies showing up at the Office of Management and Budget during this time frame.

MARTIN: Can I just clarify that, 'cause I think many people might find it curious that the tobacco companies were involved here because I think a lot of people have the impression that e-cigarettes are an alternative to tobacco products? I mean, the whole point was to get people to stop using tobacco products. That's not true?

BAUMGAERTNER: Very interesting point that you make. And that's a question that many federal officials are trying to get to the bottom of right now. Even in Congress, Senator Durbin is on top of this issue. You've seen companies like Juul arguing that they are an alternative to tobacco, that they're even a safe alternative to tobacco. But, of course, giant tobacco companies have a large stake in the company. So a lot of people are wondering the same thing you're wondering - how can that be?

MARTIN: So when you approached former Obama administration officials to ask them what happened there, what did they say?

BAUMGAERTNER: The argument on behalf of the Office of Management and Budget, which is essentially the economists in the White House, is this was going to have a very, very, very large effect on small businesses around the country. And they felt that the science wasn't yet strong enough to make such an economic burden on those companies.

It's important to note that the Office of Management and Budget often serves as a bottleneck for regulations, no matter the political party. Often, once the Office of Management and Budget touches a regulation, it tends to weaken.

MARTIN: And, well, you say in your piece that after these rules took effect in 2016, sales for Juul, the most popular e-cigarettes, skyrocketed by more than sixfold. And you say this reversed decades of progress on youth smoking and that by 2018, about 4.9 million middle and high school students were using tobacco products. This, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; you quote them in your piece.

Now the FDA is finalizing a policy to essentially ban flavored e-cigarettes. What lesson do you think we should draw from all this?

BAUMGAERTNER: You know, a lot of folks think that it's good news that the FDA is finally making moves on this, but other groups say they'll believe it when they see it. There's a chance that the regulation could not go through fully.

And in the long term, what's more important to notice here is that these acute infections that have people anxious about vaping are a very small piece of the problem. A much bigger part of the problem will be the long-term effects, the millions of teens who could switch to cigarettes, meaning hundreds of thousands more could die as a result of smoking in the long run.

MARTIN: That is Emily Baumgaertner. She's a reporter for the LA Times.

Emily, thanks so much for joining us.

BAUMGAERTNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.