Biden delays ban on menthol cigarettes

The Biden administration said Friday it is delaying a decision on whether to ban menthol cigarettes as federal officials take more time to consider the move.

The White House has faced strong opposition from big tobacco companies who could lose billions of dollars from this move. But the proposal also posed risks for President Biden in an election year because of its weakening support among Black voters, some of whom see it as heavy-handed.

“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 delay goes against a strong push from federal regulators, who saw the ban as a way to save lives and reduce lung cancer deaths. The idea had united a number of public health groups, including major lung, heart, cancer and pediatric associations.

They cite years of data suggesting that menthol cigarettes, long marketed to African American smokers, make it more appealing to start smoking and harder to quit.

“Two full years after publishing proposed rules supported by extensive scientific evidence – and more than a decade since the FDA began examining menthol cigarettes – the administration has failed to take decisive action to remove these products deadly and market-addictive,” Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, said in a statement.

“The administration's inaction is allowing the tobacco industry to continue to aggressively market these products and attract and addict new users.”

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 to nearly a quarter of smokers quitting, while the rest would switch to menthol-free cigarettes or continue smoking menthol cigarettes.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the administration's decision on Friday.

The proposal reached the White House in October. Official calendars were soon flooded with meeting requests from supporters of the ban as well as opponents, including tobacco companies, convenience stores and gas station retailers who predicted 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 Trump.

Altria, which makes some Marlboro menthol cigarettes, donated less, 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 that such a ban would be enforced at the manufacturer level.)

The growing opposition has posed a conundrum for Biden, who faces a tight reelection race and declining support among black voters.

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

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

“FDA research confirms that a menthol ban would save lives; there is no scientific reason to delay finalizing this rule,” Laurent Huber, executive director of Action on Smoking & Health, said in a statement when the lawsuit was filed.

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