Biden delays ban on menthol cigarettes

The Biden administration said Friday it was delaying a decision on whether to ban menthol cigarettes, effectively quashing a proposal that has divided Black American voters and fueled millions of dollars in lobbying campaigns by the tobacco industry in this presidential election year.

The White House has faced considerable resistance from cigarette companies that stand to lose billions of dollars if they can no longer sell menthol cigarettes. Opponents took to the airwaves to warn of increased cartel trafficking along the border due to the smuggling of counterfeit cigarettes and police violence against Black residents if a ban were in place.

Such efforts have posed risks for President Biden, whose support among Black voters has at times declined in recent months.

Some of Biden's top health officials have said a ban would save lives and protect against lung cancer, which poses a greater risk to Black smokers, who historically prefer menthol cigarettes and are heavily targeted by tobacco companies .

“This rule has garnered historic attention, and the public comment period has produced a tremendous amount of feedback, including from various elements of the civil rights and criminal justice movement,” Xavier Becerra, Secretary of State, said in a statement. health and human services. “It is clear that there are still many conversations to be had and this will take much longer.”

The decision highlighted a debate among top federal officials over how to weigh the political and legal consequences of a ban against public health.

A White House spokesperson declined to comment and referred to Becerra's statement.

Becerra, the administration's top federal health official, said in an interview earlier this year that he continued to push the White House to support the ban.

“We started putting together all the elements of a good proposal to move forward on something we've known for decades: that menthol is killing Americans in disproportionate numbers when it comes to smoking,” he said.

“It shouldn't surprise anyone that we're going to keep pushing until the end,” he said in the interview.

Dr. Robert Califf, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and supporter of the ban, he told House lawmakers at a budget hearing this month which hoped that regulators would be able to issue a decision by the end of the year.

“It's one of our top priorities, so I certainly hope so,” he said.

Dr. Califf said that as a cardiologist who has practiced for more than three decades, he has seen more people die from tobacco-related illnesses “than almost any doctor, because I was an intensivist dealing with the end-stage of the disease.”

“From the FDA's perspective and from me as an individual, given what I've seen in my lifetime, we're talking about approximately 600,000 deaths that could be prevented over the next 30 years,” Dr. Califf said. Most would be Black Americans who are the consumers targeted by the industry, he added.

The FDA had previously described the initiative as a “critical piece” of Biden's Cancer Moonshot initiative, noting that about 30% of all cancer deaths are caused by smoking. Studies have predicted that a ban could prevent up to 650,000 smoking-related deaths.

A majority of the Congressional Black Caucus supported the ban. On Friday, Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, rebuked the president, saying Biden was choosing politics over people's lives.

“Today's news from the Biden administration is a blow to the Black community, which continues to be unfairly targeted and unfairly killed by Big Tobacco,” Johnson said. “Let us be clear: the value of Black lives should not be used as a pawn to get our people to the polls, but rather as a platform from which our leaders refuse to step down.”

Democrats have worried for months about Biden's weak support among black voters, particularly among black men. Polls have consistently shown that Biden enjoys the support of a substantially lower percentage of Black men than he achieved in the 2020 election, which in turn was a lower percentage than that achieved by Democratic presidential candidates in previous elections.

The ban also united a number of public health groups, including major lung, heart, cancer and pediatrics associations.

They cited years of data suggesting that menthol cigarettes, long marketed to African American smokers, make it more appealing to start smoking and harder to quit. Many of these groups expressed outrage Friday over the delay, first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

“The White House has surrendered to industry rhetoric, and as a result, public health will suffer,” said Dr. Karen E. Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society.

The FDA formally proposed the ban in May 2022, saying there were 18.5 million smokers who preferred menthol brands in the United States. Researchers who have observed similar initiatives in other nations have estimated that a ban could lead nearly a quarter of menthol smokers to quit altogether.

The proposal reached the White House in October. Soon, official calendars were flooded with meeting requests not only from supporters of the ban but also from opponents, including tobacco companies, convenience stores and gas station retailers. They predicted that the ban would cost them billions of dollars in sales.

Reynolds American, which makes Newport menthol cigarettes, has donated millions of dollars in recent years to political action funds benefiting Republican lawmakers, as well as $1 million in February to a fund supporting former President Donald J. Trump.

“We firmly believe there are more effective ways to permanently wean adult smokers away from cigarettes,” Luis Pinto, a spokesman for Reynolds, said in a statement. “We believe that providing access to potentially safer nicotine alternatives, such as appropriately regulated flavored vaping products – including menthol – is critical to supporting adult smokers to migrate away from combustible cigarettes.”

Altria, which makes some Marlboro menthol cigarettes, donated less than Reynolds, but also contributed to funds supporting Republican lawmakers.

Republicans in Congress denounced the proposed ban in letters to the Biden administration, warning that it would increase trafficking in counterfeit cigarettes. Republicans also tried unsuccessfully last year to block the government from funding any work on the ban.

Opponents of the ban have sponsored prime-time commercials criticizing the ban and saying it would fuel illicit tobacco trafficking and enrich cartels. They helped promote concerns among some black leaders that a ban would encourage law enforcement to target black smokers. (The FDA said such a ban would be imposed on manufacturers.)

Biden's campaign has gone to great lengths to shore up his support among black voters. He tested a variety of get-out-the-vote methods and strategies in South Carolina ahead of the state's first Democratic primary in February, and has since dedicated resources and organized campaign events targeting Black voters in key battleground states general.

Reynolds argued that the ban would have “serious unintended consequences,” including increased use of counterfeit cigarettes. Altria made the same argument and also said that historically low and declining youth smoking rates do not justify pursuing a ban.

Convenience store owners who predicted the ban would cost them billions staged a rally in November outside the Manhattan office of Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader. In attendance were members of the National Action Network, who admitted they had accepted tobacco funding over the years.

They invited Gwen Carr, Eric Garner's mother, who died after a police officer who suspected she was selling loose cigarettes put him in a chokehold. During the event he warned that the menthol ban would increase such encounters with police. “This will create more chaos in black and brown communities,” she said.

In an interview following the event, Ms. Carr said she had not received any money from tobacco companies. “I can't be bought,” she said.

The FDA had previously said it expected to see the menthol ban finalized by the end of 2023. As the months passed, public health groups ramped up the pressure, holding a “menthol funeral” outside the White House in January to highlight the missed opportunity to extend the ban. human lives and curb smoking-related diseases.

In April, Action on Smoking & Health, an advocacy group, and the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council sued the administration seeking relief.

“The tobacco industry's arguments have prevailed over public health,” Laurent Huber, executive director of Action on Smoking & Health, said in a statement Friday. “There is no scientific research to support the continued sale of mentholated tobacco products.”

David A. Fahrenthold, Reid J. Epstein AND Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed to the reporting.

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