President Trump’s backing off a crackdown he promised against teen vaping looks like it may help stall similar efforts in Florida.
TALLAHASSEE — Weeks after President Donald Trump pulled back from his demand for a crackdown on vaping by teenagers, his political protégé in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, is following a similar path.
Trump in early September said he wanted a nationwide ban on all flavored vape products, following months of rising reports of vaping-related lung injuries.
But within a couple of months, Trump abandoned that call amid industry pushback and political concerns about antagonizing supporters in battleground states, including Florida.
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While DeSantis didn’t embrace Trump’s initial demand for a ban, he now says that he’s also wary of Florida making any major changes.
The governor said he’s concerned that a flavored vape ban could lead users — particularly teens — to buy what he termed "bootleg" e-cigarette products.
"I think you’ve got to be careful," DeSantis said. "You can say you’re not going to allow this flavor or that, but people will react with their behavior accordingly. So I want to do it in a way that’s actually going to lead to as good outcomes as we can."
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DeSantis’s stance — mirroring the president’s reluctance to act — could sap momentum from a fresh flurry of efforts to more strictly regulate vaping products when the state Legislature convenes in January.
Bills unveiled after Trump’s September call to action by DeSantis’ fellow Republicans, Rep. Jackie Toledo of Tampa and Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, would ban flavored vape products, while Toledo’s bill and another by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, would raise the minimum age for legally vaping or smoking tobacco to 21 from the current 18.
Read more: Vaping-linked lung illnesses surface in Florida
Simmons got his age 21 bill through the Senate in last spring’s session, but it failed to go anywhere in the House.
DeSantis said he’s also not ready to back an age hike for buying vaping or tobacco products.
"I have not weighed in on that," DeSantis told reporters, adding he’s uncomfortable with the apparent conflict between what 18-year-olds can currently do.
"You can vote; you can die for the country, but you can’t do that (smoke or vape)?" DeSantis said. "That creates a little bit of an issue there."
The push for tougher regulations has come into focus following this year’s nationwide outbreak of vaping-related lung injuries, with almost 2,300 cases across all 50 states, resulting in 48 deaths as of last week.
The Florida Department of Health reported 99 lung injuries and one death this year.
"Minors are more prone to nicotine addiction than adults," Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees told the state Senate’s Health Policy Committee in October.
Still, the lung injuries appear mostly related to additives used in devices for vaping THC, the marijuana compound that yields a high. Pressure, though, is building for public officials to step in and at least limit teen access to vaping and e-cigarettes.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican, announced in October that she was launching an investigation into the marketing and sales practices of more than 20 vaping companies doing business in Florida — saying she wanted to probe whether they were directly targeting teens.
A Moody spokeswoman, Lauren Schenone Cassedy, said the move was prompted by a series of meetings the attorney general had with school officials and parents over the summer, and was unrelated to the president’s initial call for banning flavored vape products.
"One in four high school students admit to vaping," Moody said in October. "But if you talk to students one on one and get them to put their phones down for a moment, they’ll tell you more than that are vaping. And the scary statistic is that two-thirds of young people have no idea these devices contain nicotine."
Moody also said that the state Legislature should respond.
"At a minimum we need to be looking at whether flavors in vaping products should be allowed in the state of Florida," she said. "Cotton candy, bubble gum, Cap’n Crunch are all flavors that are used. And studies have shown it is primarily what attracts children to this habit."
But Trump’s reversal appears to have cooled some of the initial fervor for regulation. He met at the White House last month with representatives of the vaping industry — largely controlled by major tobacco companies — and also with children’s health groups.
Trump told those gathered that he was still uncertain how to craft regulations that would satisfy those wanting to blunt the growing number of teenagers vaping but not harm the industry or push people to use even more risky products.
The meeting came around the same time polling of presidential toss-up states conducted for the industry showed that a ban could spark a backlash against Trump from voters who vape. The survey by McLaughlin & Associates, a polling firm close to Trump, showed that 96% of vapers said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who wanted to ban flavored vaping products.
More than 10 million adults in the U.S. vape regularly, according to estimates, a significant number when the president is running for re-election amid the swirl of an impeachment inquiry and disapproval ratings that exceed 50% in many polls.
Trump and DeSantis were together Saturday at the Florida Republican Party’s Statesman’s Dinner in Aventura, a major fund-raising event for the GOP in a state which the president has recently claimed as his residence, and which most analysts agree he will likely have to carry to win re-election.
Against that political backdrop, DeSantis would only go so far as to require strict enforcement of current laws that limit the purchase of vaping products to those age 18 or older.
DeSantis said he’ll commit to "making sure these shops know that their business licenses are on the line if they’re going to allow this stuff to be sold to people who are underage.
"So we’re looking at ways to do that," DeSantis said. "That’s a proposal that makes a lot of sense."
This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.