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‘We’re trying to protect children’: Donna Shalala on e-cigarettes

Florida Democrat touts bill that would raise the age to buy e-cigarettes from 18 to 21

Florida Rep. Donna E. Shalala is sponsoring a bill that would raise the age to buy e-cigarettes, and any tobacco product, from 18 to 21. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Florida Rep. Donna E. Shalala is sponsoring a bill that would raise the age to buy e-cigarettes, and any tobacco product, from 18 to 21. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Hundreds of Americans have become sick and eight have died after using electronic cigarettes, prompting a bipartisan response in Washington. President Donald Trump last month called for a ban on the flavorings believed to attract young people to the devices.

But Florida freshman Rep. Donna E. Shalala says Congress needs to do more. Shalala, who was Health and Human Services secretary under President Bill Clinton, has teamed with a fellow House Democrat, Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, on a bill that would raise the age to buy e-cigarettes, and any tobacco product, from 18 to 21, and add other restrictions aimed at keeping young people from getting hooked on nicotine.

[Bipartisan group urges FDA to go beyond vaping flavor ban]

Shalala spoke with CQ Magazine deputy editor Shawn Zeller for the Sept. 13 “CQ on Congress” podcast.

An edited transcript follows.

Q. You’ve proposed legislation that would go much farther than what President Trump proposed by way of banning flavorings for e-cigarettes. Why do you see the need to go further than that?

A. We’re trying to protect children. So raising the age to 21 for buying e-cigarettes is extremely important, as is eliminating this advertising which is clearly targeted to young people.

I’ve been through this before with the tobacco companies. They targeted children, and we spent two decades reducing the number of children that start smoking. If they don’t start smoking before they’re 18, they will never smoke.

So the tobacco companies pivoted and their financiers pivoted and went to e-cigarettes, and now we have another problem. It’s like pounding them down on one side, and they pop up on the other side.

Q. So what else is in your bill by way of restrictions to keep e-cigarettes away from children?

A. Getting all of the places that sell e-cigarettes to enforce the age limit will be important. Getting rid of online sales will be extremely effective.

The bill will require states and local governments to participate. The president has only tried to ban the flavors.

What we’re doing by legislation is taking a much more comprehensive approach.

Q. Have you spoken with Speaker Nancy Pelosi about getting your bill to the floor?

A. I spoke to the speaker, and she gave me an earful about what she’s been hearing in her own district about e-cigarettes.

Q. What about working with the Republicans on this?

A. Absolutely. In fact, Senate Majority Leader [Mitch McConnell] has already indicated that he will support a bill that raises the age to 21. That combined with the president’s commitment suggests to me that we ought to be able to put together a bipartisan effort, and I expect Republicans in the House of Representatives to support the bill as well.

Q. When you were head of the Health and Human Services Department, it did not have the power to regulate tobacco, but it gained that in a 2009 law signed by President Barack Obama. Should the government have been more attuned to the risk here of the tobacco companies pivoting away from traditional cigarettes to e-cigarettes?

A. Yes. They should have been watching it much more carefully. The first thing I heard was from teachers about what they were seeing in the classroom, and of course, college campuses, which had smoking bans, were beginning to see e-cigarettes as well. But the purchasing of the small [e-cigarette] companies by the tobacco companies should have been a clear signal for everyone.

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