Biden delays plan to ban menthol cigarettes amid widespread opposition

The announcement is another setback for Food and Drug Administration officials, who drafted the ban and predicted it would prevent hundreds of thousands of smoking-related deaths over 40 years

Andrea Cavallier
Saturday 27 April 2024 23:01 BST
Will the Biden administration approve a ban on menthol cigarettes?

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President Biden’s administration is delaying the menthol cigarette ban amid widespread opposition.

In the announcement made on Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra gave no timeline, only saying only that the administration would take more time to consider feedback.

“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,” Mr Becerra said.

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

The announcement is another setback for Food and Drug Administration officials, who drafted the ban and predicted it would prevent hundreds of thousands of smoking-related deaths over 40 years, the Associated Press reported.

More than 11 per cent of US adults smoke, with rates roughly even between white and Black people. But about 80 per cent of Black smokers smoke menthol, which the FDA says masks the harshness of smoking, making it easier to start and harder to quit. Also, most teenagers who smoke cigarettes prefer menthols.

Smoking can cause cancer, strokes and heart attacks and is blamed for 480,000 deaths each year in the US, including 45,000 among Black Americans.

Menthol Cigarettes
Menthol Cigarettes (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

“This decision prioritizes politics over lives, especially Black lives,” said Yolonda Richardson of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in an emailed statement to the Associated Press.

“It is especially disturbing to see the administration parrot the false claims of the tobacco industry about support from the civil rights community.”

Ms Richardson also said that the ban is supported by groups including the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus.

The announcement on Friday comes exactly two years after the FDA initially proposed the regulations, which paved the way for a historic ban on menthol cigarettes that the administration said would be a “critical” piece of President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, Fox News reported.

“Unfortunately, the possibility of this administration making these rules a reality is shrinking with the passage of time, and ACS CAN is calling on the administration to not miss the opportunity to make a historic gain in the fight against cancer,” American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network CEO Karen Knudsen said in a statement on Friday ahead of Mr Becerra’s announcement.

Dozens of meetings were held by the White House with groups in opposition to the ban, including civil rights organizers, law enforcement officials and small business owners, most of whom have financial ties to tobacco companies.

For decades, tobacco companies focused on menthol advertising and promotions in Black communities, sponsoring music festivals and neighbourhood events. Industry documents released via litigation also show companies viewed menthol cigarettes as a good “starter product” because they were more palatable to teens, the Associated Press reported.

The FDA released its draft of the proposed ban in 2022. Officials under Biden initially targeted last August to finalize the rule. Late last year, White House officials said they would take until March to review the measure. When that deadline passed last month, several anti-smoking groups filed a lawsuit to force its release.

“We are disappointed with the action of the Biden administration, which has caved in to the scare tactics of the tobacco industry,” said Dr Mark Mitchell of the National Medical Association, an African American physician group that is suing the administration.

Separately, Rev Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders have warned that a menthol ban would create an illegal market for the cigarettes in Black communities and invite more confrontations with police.

The FDA and health advocates have long rejected such concerns, noting FDA’s enforcement of the rule would only apply to companies that make or sell cigarettes, not to individuals.

An FDA spokesperson said Friday the agency is still committed to banning menthol cigarettes.

“As we’ve made clear, these product standards remain at the top of our priorities,” Jim McKinney said in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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