Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman and philanthropist who has financed efforts to combat tobacco use around the world for years, has a new target: e-cigarettes in the United States.
Bloomberg Philanthropies announced Tuesday that it would spend US$160 million over three years to try to ban flavoured e-cigarettes, which, it said, are specifically designed to entice kids to vape.
The vaping initiative is Bloomberg's first anti-tobacco effort aimed at the United States, according to officials of Bloomberg Philanthropies. They said the money will be used to press local, state and federal governments to ban flavoured e-cigarettes; to push the Food and Drug Administration to be more aggressive in reviewing vaping products and imposing standards on e-cigarette products; and to back local and state governments that might face industry opposition or lawsuits for supporting e-cigarette bans.
"E-cigarette companies and the tobacco companies that back them are preying on America's youth," Bloomberg said in a statement. "The result is an epidemic that is spiralling out of control and putting kids in danger of addiction and serious health problems."
The Bloomberg announcement comes as federal health authorities are investigating five deaths from a mysterious lung illness tied to vaping. There are now 450 possible cases in 33 states and one territory. While many of the cases appear to involve marijuana products, a smaller number of patients say they used only nicotine e-cigarettes, federal officials have said.
Matt Myers, president of the nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which will coordinate the Bloomberg effort, said the $160 million from Bloomberg will "allow us to transform what is going on" in the battle over e-cigarettes. By year's end, he predicted, "a significant number" of major cities will be considering e-cigarette prohibitions and several state legislatures will probably follow.
Some states already are moving. On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, announced plans to propose legislation to ban the possession, manufacture, sale and distribution of flavoured e-cigarettes. Michigan has announced plans to ban the products on an emergency basis.
Besides removing flavoured e-cigarettes from the marketplace, Bloomberg Philanthropies wants to end online e-cigarette sales until sales to kids can be prevented. Currently, the group said, "companies have insufficient protections to keep kids from purchasing their products online."
On Monday, the FDA blasted Juul Labs for illegally marketing its e-cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes and ordered the company to correct the violations immediately or face tougher enforcement actions. The agency noted that companies are required to get agency authorisation to promote their products as less harmful than cigarettes. Juul said it will cooperate fully with the FDA.
Bloomberg Philanthropies said research indicates that Juul's marketing practices have been "patently youth-oriented." Reports indicate that the Federal Trade Commission is investigating Juul's marketing practices and the extent to which those efforts were geared toward kids. At a congressional hearing in July, Juul officials said that while Juul had made "missteps," it never wanted young people to use its vaping products.
People close to Bloomberg said he is upset that the surge in underage e-cigarette use threatens a historic decline in smoking in recent years, and is determined to make sure that progress against smoking is not reversed.