Amid a far-ranging push to deregulate American companies — from payday lenders to internet service providers — the vaping industry is transforming within the United States.
The Food and Drug Administration announced it will push ahead with a plan to reduce nicotine in cigarettes. Additionally, the FDA said it also wants to take a closer look at menthol and other flavors that entice young people to try smoking.
Not why would a federal agency charged with keeping Americans safe go after cigarettes — under normal circumstances, the answer to that would be obvious.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb last week unveiled an "advance notice of proposed rulemaking" that is the first of numerous steps in a regulatory process that could last years. The goal, he said, is to "explore a product standard to lower nicotine in cigarettes to minimally or non-addictive levels."
This week he said that "we must give serious consideration to the ways in which we might further address flavors in combustible tobacco products like menthol in cigarettes and the fruit- and candy-flavored little cigars and cigarillos."
Those are impressive objectives considering they're direct assaults on the $130 - billion U.S. tobacco industry, which, along with all that money showered on Republican lawmakers, donated $1.5 million to Trump's inauguration festivities.
"The strong statements from Commissioner Gottlieb are a very encouraging sign, but such a strong regulatory move would go against the overall anti-regulatory tone of the Trump administration," said Micah Berman, a professor of law and public health at Ohio State University.
"The FDA seems committed to this approach," he told me, "but the tobacco industry will heavily lobby to shut it down."
The FDA is right to target tobacco flavorings as a gateway for young people to take up the habit. But, pardon the expression, it may be just a smokescreen.
An FDA spokesman steered me to Gottlieb's official statement, in which he noted that tobacco kills more than 480,000 Americans every year and costs nearly $300 billion annually in healthcare expenses and lost productivity.
"In fact," he said, "cigarettes are the only legal consumer product that, when used as intended, will kill half of all long-term users."
That's not exactly a news flash. Nor will it surprise anyone that the tobacco industry, despite its legacy of death, has fought aggressively against regulation of its products.
Last summer, the FDA announced it would delay regulation of e-cigarettes until 2022 at the earliest. This was a huge win for tobacco companies, which view e-cigs and vaping as major money makers.
The global market for e-cigarettes was worth $11.4 billion in 2016, according to BIS Research. By 2025, the company forecast in a study this month, global e-cigarette sales will reach $86.4 billion.