Regulating tobacco is a waste of time for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a top White House official said, as the Trump administration prepared to unveil new measures designed to curtail an alarming surge in nicotine vaping by teenagers.
Joe Grogan, the head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, called the FDA's regulation of tobacco "a huge waste of time" and said the agency should focus on approving and monitoring new drugs. He said the agency had been "sucked in the mud" dealing with tobacco rather than approving more drugs or focusing on serious illnesses.
President Donald Trump, in separate remarks at the White House, said the administration would soon release rules on vaping products, and called for raising the age to buy e-cigarettes and vape devices to 21. He also said preserving jobs is a factor for him, a sign that new measures may include some kind of exemption for vape shops.
"We're talking about the age, we're talking about flavors, we're also talking about keeping people working, and there's some pretty good aspects," Trump said to reporters. "We're coming out, we're very close to a final report, and we'll be giving it next week."
The administration is expected to release guidance soon to stop the sale of some e-cigarette flavors for devices like the popular Juul, though has discussed exemptions for vape shops. Opponents of the restrictions on flavor have argued that they'll hurt vaping shops and put people out of work. Juul Labs Inc. said this week it would stop selling mint vaping products, withdrawing one of its most popular flavors.
The FDA was given authority to regulate tobacco under a sweeping 2009 law that made broad changes to how cigarettes are sold and marketed. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act largely banned cigarette vending machines, sponsorship of sports and other events, and created new warnings for products. Cigarettes are responsible for more than 400,000 deaths a year, and are considered one of the world's leading causes of preventable disease and mortality.
Grogan, speaking at an event in Washington Friday morning, said he thought the agency did have authority over nicotine, and said the administration is "really focused on the e-cigarette devices that have the nicotine and flavors mixed."
"When I was in the Bush administration when this conversation started, I said this is a moronic idea," Grogan said in his remarks on the FDA's tobacco authority. He added that past FDA commissioners Scott Gottlieb and Ned Sharpless spent too much time focusing on tobacco instead of life-saving drug approvals.
The FDA has approved drugs at a rapid pace during the Trump administration, with 59 novel drugs cleared in 2018 and 34 so far in 2019, according to its website.
"What the hell are we doing with FDA doing this? It's just awful that we're wasting our time," Grogan said of the agency's tobacco efforts. With the vaping guidance on flavors, Grogan said the administration wanted to "strike the right balance between protecting kids and giving adults the choices they need to stay off combustibles."
Gottlieb, in a tweet, called the focus on tobacco proper.
Sharpless, the director of National Institutes of Health's National Cancer Institute, declined to comment. The FDA didn't respond to a request for comment.
According to the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey, about 4.1 million high school students and 1.2 million middle-school students will have used vaping products at some point this year.
(Stein reported from Arlington, Va., Porter Jr. from New York and Wingrove from Washington.)