Melania Trump hosted a listening session with a group of nine teenagers in the White House’s Blue Room on Wednesday afternoon, to learn more about how the growing trend of vaping has affected their lives.
The teens, ranging in age from 13 to 18 years old – and from several different parts of the country – are part of Truth Initiative, which bills itself as the largest nonprofit public health organization dedicated to eradicating tobacco use.
“How did you get started?” asked the first lady of one of the boys. He said he was 12 years old and stopped only after he got caught vaping in school and got in “a lot of trouble” both with school administrators and his parents. Trump said she was “proud of you” when the teen said he eventually kicked his vaping habit.
Trump announced this listening session Tuesday, showing a growing interest in preventing the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products by young people.
On September 11, she joined President Donald Trump in the Oval Office as he announced he would have to do “something very, very strong” about stopping kids from being able to access e-cigarette products.” He called it a “new problem,” but “potentially very bad.”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told CNN at the time the presidential event was prompted in large part by the first lady.
“We need to be proactive,” said the first lady on Wednesday to the teenagers facing her in a semi-circle of chairs, each draped on the back with a drawstring bag labeled “Be Best.” Trump noted how more and more stores appear to be pulling e-cigarette products in the wake of an alarming rise of sickness and death associated with using vape products.
On Tuesday, New York State officials announced the first death of a teenager from a vaping-related illness. The 17-year-old boy from the Bronx died on Friday after being hospitalized twice last month. In total, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of October 1, 1,080 cases of lung injury illnesses associated with vaping have been reported from 48 states, and there have been more than two dozen deaths confirmed in 20 states.
During the September Oval Office meeting with the first lady, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, also present at Wednesday’s listening session, said the US Food and Drug Administration is going to crack down on the vaping industry, starting with flavored products.
“The Food and Drug Administration intends to finalize a guidance document that would commence enforcement to require that all flavors, other than tobacco flavor, would be removed from the market,” said Azar. “This would include mint and menthol flavoring, as well as candy flavors, bubblegum flavor, fruit flavor, alcohol flavor. You get the drift.”
Azar said it would take “several weeks” to come up with the final parameters, but that he expected after such time the government would begin enforcement to remove those products from retailers.
Trump’s plan to toughen up the rules about vaping will likely have drastic impact on the lucrative and powerful tobacco industry, which is already putting up a fight over the concept of reducing the sales of e-cigarette products. According to recent research, more than 10 million adults use e-cigarettes, many as a way to curb traditional cigarette smoking habits.
Yet the first lady and the Truth Initiative, which started the popular “truth” anti-smoking campaign, kept the focus on children and teenagers, and the ways in which they are living in the vaping age. One of the kids invited to the listening session with the Trump said it was common for him to use the restroom at school and see as many as five of his peers vaping.
This story has been updated.