President Donald Trump said Friday he was "here to listen" at a lively White House debate on the "very complex subject" of vaping and the impact of kid-friendly e-cigarette flavors on American youth.
After announcing he was considering a ban on flavored vaping products in September, Trump has eased off at least temporarily, conceding to a vigorous lobbying campaign by the tobacco and e-cigarette industries.
Ten days ago he called for talks where industry representatives and medical professionals could reach an acceptable solution to the vaping "dilemma," as the practice comes under increasing scrutiny following a series of deaths.
"Children's health & safety, together with jobs, will be a focus!" he tweeted at the time.
The vaping industry is accused of targeting minors. The products' cartridges are infused with fruit, candy or dessert flavors, thus luring a new generation into nicotine addiction.
Vaping advocates warn a ban would cost jobs and smother the role of e-cigarettes in weaning smokers off cigarettes.
Trump did not take sides on Friday, but led an animated discussion on vaping for more than an hour, peppering those in attendance with questions and engaging in sometimes-heated exchanges.
"What is your solution?" "What would you do?" "So you think flavors are dangerous essentially?" Trump asked.
"Would you say it's a lesser problem to smoking cigarettes? Do you think it helps people quit?"
Trump asked if youth consumption -- seen by health advocates as a growing concern -- would slide if flavors were removed.
"Will they add their own flavors in?" the president wondered. "A lot of people want to leave the menthol."
Many anti-smoking organizations and the American Cancer Society are urging the president to stick to his original proposal to ban all flavored e-cigarettes.
Trump expressed caution on that front, although he did say it would be logical to set a national vaping minimum age at 21, something 18 of the 50 US states have done.
- 'Health emergency -
Trump has shown particular interest in Juul. The leading manufacturer of e-cigarettes in the United States has already stopped selling its mango and mint-flavored cartridge refills, which are popular among high school students.
But it has defended its menthol products, retaining a flavor that is well-known among American smokers.
"You are the head of Juul, what are you saying?" he asked an industry executive at the roundtable, referring to the company's decision to stop selling certain flavors of its e-cigarette pods. "So you think flavors are dangerous essentially?"
On several occasions the Republican billionaire, visibly moved by some of the tobacco industry's arguments, has said a ban on flavored versions would lead to contraband products of lower quality being smuggled into the United States.
Cartridge refills with THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, that are sold on the black market are part of an epidemic of vaping-related lung disease that has been blamed for 2,290 illnesses and 47 deaths in the United States since the summer.
The public health crisis has now become a focal point of the debate on vaping and youth.
Senator Mitt Romney, one of the few Republicans in Congress who openly criticizes Trump, has made the vaping crisis one of his primary issues, and found himself seated next to the president at Friday's meeting.
He voiced adamant support for a flavor ban, saying, "We have to put the kids first."
"It's the flavor that's drawing the kids in" and getting them addicted to nicotine, Romney said in a heated exchange with industry executives. "It's a health emergency."