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Getting Smoked

By Andrew Vipatasilpin

The ban on flavored e-cigarette pods, implemented by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), had become effective as of January 2nd, 2020. Companies involved in the supply chain from manufacturers to retail have 30 days to pull these products from their firm or face FDA enforcement. For some, namely conservatives, this regulation serves to protect minors from developing nicotine addictions at an early age. For others, namely the youth who partakes in vaping, this regulation essentially means their local drug dealer will now include Juul pods amongst their repertoire of feel-good products. While the debate over regulation will continue in the foreseeable future, this article specifically looks at the Tobacco industry’s role in these turn of events. As it turns out, they are pretty peeved.

At first glance, this new ban appears to be a victory for Tobacco. Their e-cigarette rivals such as JUUL, NJOY, and Reynolds, will have their most profitable products taken off the market. For instance, the pods still available for purchase such as menthol or tobacco aren’t as nearly as lucrative as the now-banned mint-flavored pods, which were responsible for 70% of U.S sales in 2019. However, Altria Group, Inc., the biggest tobacco conglomerate and owner of the tried and true pack of Marlboro cigarettes, invested 12.8 billion dollars for a 35% stake in JUUL Labs in 2018, which, as of 2020, is only worth 4.2 billion. This is a huge loss of over 8 billion dollars that has Altria rethinking its decisions that lead to this moment.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect is the failure of the tobacco lobby to prevent such regulations from seeing the light of day. This does not mean that the power of the dollar to influence politics is on the decline, although that would be ideal. This recent turn of events can be attributed to Tobacco interest groups backing the wrong party. According to Open Secrets, the tobacco industry donated roughly $50,000 to the Clinton campaign and only $22,100 to the Trump campaign during the 2016 election cycle. What’s worse, for tobacco at least, is that Jeb Bush was actually the tobacco-backed Republican candidate with the top donation of $44,500. These numbers confirm the fact that nobody, not even tobacco companies, thought Trump was going to be elected to the highest office in the land. Additionally, they provide a potential explanation as to why the Trump administration would allow this sort of regulation. 

It should be noted the executive branch has almost an exclusive role in implementing this ban. The regulation was the product of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforcement. While members of Congress strongly urged the FDA to act, no votes were made to ban certain vaping flavors. Thus, the Trump administration permitted the FDA, an agency under the Department of Human Health and Services, to ban flavored JUUL pods.

This information opens the door for many a debate on the executive branch’s motivations. Was Trump spiteful about not getting enough money? Possibly. Yet, it should be noted that the rise of underage vaping can be interpreted as a bipartisan issue affecting cooperation from both political parties. Additionally, Altria and their once 12.8 million now 4.2 million dollar partner JUUL Labs are working overtime to meet new regulations set by the FDA. The tobacco and vaping companies, with all their money, influence, and propensity to sell carcinogens, are willing to compromise when it comes to underage vaping.

However, there is still a silver lining. If JUUL Labs fails to have its products resubmitted and approved by the FDA, or the value of JUUL Labs falls below 1.28 million dollars, Altria has the right, per their agreement with JUUL, to launch their own line of e-cigarettes, which could be conveniently up to date with FDA regulations at the time of completion. It appears that Altria has planned many alternative outcomes should their investment go south.

The new ban on flavored pods for vaping has placed the e-cigarette industry in financial risk with tobacco companies, specifically Altria, taking collateral damage. These regulations have come about from increased attention to underage vaping. Yet, we should never underestimate Trump’s capacity to remember his enemies. Whatever the cause, the bygone era of flavored pods is starting to fade away in the rearview mirror. Let us lament the past forgone and cherish the ones we shared it with.

Andrew Vipatasilpin is an undergraduate at the George Washington University majoring in Political Science.

Note: The GW College Democrats News & Blog Committee’s mission is to highlight, empower, and facilitate the political expression of its members. As such, the views expressed in this article are based on the opinions of its author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the whole of GW College Democrats, its executive board, or its senior deputy board.


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