Biden administration pushes back plan to ban menthol cigarettes

The Biden administration has once again pushed back its plans to ban menthol cigarettes amid pressure from critics, including some civil rights leaders, who said it would unfairly target Black smokers.

“This rule has garnered historic attention and the public comment period has yielded an immense amount of feedback, including from various elements of the civil rights and criminal justice movement,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a Friday statement.

“It’s clear that there are still more conversations to have, and that will take significantly more time,” he added.

A menthol ban has been more than a decade in the making across multiple administrations but has been held up at almost every turn.

Public health groups, who were initially optimistic after the Biden administration proposed the rules in 2022, said they were disappointed and frustrated that politics and industry pressure seemingly won the day yet again.

“If the Biden administration believed that Black lives matter, they would have ended the sale of menthol flavored cigarettes. Instead, they appear to be caving to Big Tobacco which has racistly targeted our community for decades,” Carol McGruder, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, said. “Hundreds of thousands of Black Americans will die in the years to come because of today’s inaction. Shame on you, President Biden!”

Health officials initially targeted last August to publish the rule to ban menthol. But at the end of last year, the Biden administration delayed the ban until March after fierce lobbying from critics — including the tobacco industry — seemingly spooked the White House that such a move could anger Black smokers and harm President Biden’s reelection chances.

There is no deadline for the rule to be published, and HHS wouldn’t say if the rule will be withdrawn. In a statement, the Food and Drug Administration said the issue is still a priority.

“The FDA remains committed to issuing the tobacco product standards for menthol in cigarettes and characterizing flavors in cigars,” a spokesperson said. “As we’ve made clear, these product standards remain at the top of our priorities.”

“The FDA remains committed to issuing the tobacco product standards for menthol in cigarettes and characterizing flavors in cigars. As we’ve made clear, these product standards remain at the top of our priorities,” a spokesperson said.

The tobacco industry has long been accused of targeting the Black community, especially with menthol products. Public health experts have said banning menthol could save hundreds of thousands of lives, particularly among Black smokers. An estimated 85 percent of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, according to federal statistics.

Outside advocates have said there is no evidence a menthol ban would harm Biden among Black voters.

“There is absolutely no reason to further study or delay a rule that has been studied for more than 12 years, is supported by overwhelming scientific evidence, and will save hundreds of thousands of lives, especially Black lives. Make no mistake: Delays cost lives,” said Yolonda Richardson, resident and CEO of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Previously, the White House touted the ban as part of Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative.

A ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars “would represent the most significant regulatory actions to-date to limit the death and disease toll of highly addictive and dangerous tobacco products on the market today,” the administration said in a 2022 fact sheet.

But now, public health advocates and even some Democratic lawmakers say the administration is backtracking.

“Lives are at stake.  We know that Big Tobacco will concoct any scheme to continue selling its poison, and it’s a shame that an Administration committed to ending cancer as we know it has retreated from this critical public health strategy,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the number two Democrat in the Senate and a frequent critic of FDA’s tobacco policies.

Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust, also criticized FDA for choosing to “abandon” the menthol ban.

“The FDA’s experts have been clear that menthol cigarettes are harmful to public health. This is a commonsense plan which could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” Kelly said.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has been holding meetings with stakeholders for months, including tobacco industry lobbyists, public health advocates, industry-adjacent organizations, and civil rights groups.

In an effort to force the administration to act, three anti-tobacco public health groups earlier this month sued the Food and Drug Administration and its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services.

Nathaniel Weixel contributed.

This story was updated at 5:00 p.m.

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