In Oval Office Meeting, Trump Expresses Regret on Vaping Policy

In Oval Office Meeting, Trump Expresses Regret on Vaping Policy

President Trump upbraided the health and human services secretary on Thursday over his administration’s ban on most flavored e-cigarettes, a proposal that Mr. Trump had vacillated over for months but ultimately endorsed, according to three people familiar with what took place.

The call occurred during an evening meeting the president held in the Oval Office with a large group of campaign advisers, according to the people familiar with the events.

After one of Mr. Trump’s pollsters, Tony Fabrizio, described the importance of health care as an electoral issue, Mr. Trump reached for the phone on the Resolute Desk and called Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services.

“I never should have done this vaping thing,” Mr. Trump said, adding an expletive, according to two of the people familiar with what happened.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Azar appeared on Fox News and lavished praise on Mr. Trump, a fact the agency highlighted in a news release on Friday.

Mr. Azar supported a ban on flavored e-cigarettes to try to curb their widespread use among teenagers. Mr. Trump agreed to such a ban in the fall, but repeatedly waffled on formalizing it after his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, said it would hurt him with his base of voters.

Vaping industry officials also ratcheted up pressure on Mr. Trump. The president finally announced a version of the ban at the end of 2019, although even then he suggested it might be temporary. The ban applied to most e-cigarette cartridges, but did not include menthol, which research has found is far less popular with teenagers than other flavors. Flavored liquid nicotine sold in open tank systems at vape shops was also exempted.

“We’re going to protect our families, we’re going to protect our children and we’re going to protect the industry,” Mr. Trump said at the time, noting that some products could be back on the market “very quickly.”

That the president, not the Department of Health and Human Services or the Food and Drug Administration, has become so associated with the ban has frustrated him.

During the call, Mr. Azar defended himself as Mr. Trump asked why prescription drug prices have remained high.

The conversation was typical of Mr. Trump’s approach to negative reactions to his policies or statements — never accept blame, and fault advisers. At no point did the president acknowledge that he had chosen to publicly announce the ban.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Azar declined to answer questions about the call, saying only, “We do not comment on conversations or meetings between Secretary Azar and the president.”

Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said, “There’s no daylight between the White House and H.H.S. as we work to implement the president’s policies and improve the American health care system for everyone, not just those in the individual market.”

The White House is planning to make an announcement about health care policy in the coming weeks, something that has been worked on for several months and that will be used to counter proposals by Democrats, according to three people familiar with the plans. Mr. Azar has increasingly found the White House’s Domestic Policy Council taking a prominent role in policy that intersects with the Department of Health and Human Services, people close to the secretary said.

Mr. Trump has become acutely aware that health care is a political vulnerability for him. And he has been consumed with frustration over Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and a Democratic presidential candidate, who is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to air ads nationally, many of them attacking Mr. Trump for his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Sheila Kaplan contributed reporting.


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