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Tom Cole doesn’t vape. The 66-year-old Republican representative from Oklahoma prefers cigars, yet he’s currently a bit of an unlikely champion in the vaping industry. That’s thanks to a bill he has been trying to shepherd through Congress that would protect vaping manufacturers from a potentially fatal blow in pending regulations.
“To me, it just seems unfair,” Cole told me over the phone. “It seems to me like we’re regulating out of fear instead of out of knowledge.”
For the last five years, the Food and Drug Administration has been working through the process of regulating e-cigarettes and other vape devices by adding them to its list of controlled tobacco products. Currently, the agency only regulates cigarettes, roll-your-own tobacco, chewing tobacco, and snuff, but is adding cigars, pipe tobacco, e-cigs, vape pens, and e-liquids.
That process included releasing a set of proposed regulations, such as requiring warning labels and prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. But the proposal also defined a restrictive grandfathering date: any products that came on the market after February 15, 2007—virtually the entire vape market—would not only need to meet the new regulations but would also be forced to go through a costly application process that could push hundreds, if not thousands, of vendors out of business.
Cole’s bill, which was introduced last year and has been languishing in a subcommittee, would remove that grandfathering date. This wouldn’t mean vape products would be unregulated: they’d still be subject to whatever rules the FDA sets out, they just wouldn’t have to go through this additional, formal approval process that’s usually reserved for products that come on the market after new regulations are set.
“The products would still be subject to regulation, but we traditionally allow folks to grandfather [existing] things in and not put expenses on them,” Cole said. “There’s no particular logic for this date other than if you want to be punitive towards this industry, without a lot of evidence to justify that at this point.”
In pushing forward this bill, Cole has caught the attention of the vaping world. Redditors in a vaping subreddit have been posting for months about letters sent to their local representatives asking for support of Cole’s bill, and one vaping blog called Cole “the vape community’s potential savior.”
“Whether he knows it or not. His simple, fair, and common sense legislation will preserve hundreds of thousands of jobs,” Sham Shivaie wrote on Vape About It.
He’s not the only congressman popular among vapers. Representative Duncan Hunter is a vocal proponent of the industry who has been dubbed a “vaping hero” by some. He even vaped on the floor during a debate over allowing e-cigarettes on planes last month. But as a 39-year-old from California (home to a large portion of the vaping industry), Hunter seems a likelier candidate than Cole to hop on the vaping bandwagon. Besides a general Republican distaste for overregulation, what drew Cole to the cause? His love of stogies.
“I didn’t know anything about the vaping industry, per se. It’s not a practice that I participate in,” Cole said. “But I had people contacting me from the cigar industry because I’m well known for enjoying cigars. The two issues are married up, though the regulations on vaping seem to have the broader interest and more dangerous impact.”
Vapers don’t have a ton of allies on Capitol Hill, but have found support growing as individual politicians get alerted to the issues. As for the bill, Cole said he plans to appeal to members of the subcommittee where the bill is sitting and hopes to nudge it forward, but told me the best hope for the bill is if concerned vapers reach out to their representatives to alert them to the issue. In the meantime, the vaping industry and its handful of political supporters anxiously await the final regulations, which are expected some time later this year.
Until we see what the final rules are, there’s not much else Cole, Hunter, or any other politician can do.
“These folks have been living with the Sword of Damocles over their heads for years now, not knowing exactly when these rules will pop out and not knowing, clearly, what they will entail,” Cold told me. “We’re as much in the dark about that as anybody else is.”