Pressure to Ban Menthol Cigarettes Intensifies for the Biden Administration

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The outrage over the Biden administration’s attempt to quietly delay the highly anticipated ban on the menthol cigarettes has transformed into intense pressure on the White House to take action.

For years, throughout multiple administrations, the potential of a ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored tobacco has loomed. As evidence has mounted outlining the public health benefits of such a move, the cries for a resolution have intensified.

“We don’t believe in profit over people; that’s why the pressure is not going away, that’s why we’re doubling down,” said Jamal Watkins, the senior vice president of strategy and advancement at the NAACP. “We are talking about life and death.”

They’re one of many groups condemning the decision to push the ban back, a move that has been speculated to have been a political tactic just before the 2024 election year intended to maintain support for Biden among Black voters, who disproportionately smoke menthol cigarettes.

A poll released earlier this month on behalf of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids shows that support of a ban on menthol cigarettes is stronger among Black voters than the electorate as a whole. It pushes back against a poll commissioned by tobacco giant Altria late last year, which said such a ban would sway voters away from Biden in the upcoming election.

“It’s high time for the health conditions of Black people not to be overtly politicized when the science is clear what is in their best interest,” said Dr. Chris Pernell, the NAACP’s new health equity director. “We see this happening repeatedly.”

Today, more than 80% of Black smokers opt for menthol products — which are scientifically concocted to be easier to smoke and harder to quit — because of Big Tobacco’s aggressive marketing strategies in Black neighborhoods. They mask tobacco’s harshness with a cooling sensation, hooking young smokers who otherwise might not be able to tolerate it.

In 2009, menthol was left out of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which banned other flavors in cigarettes, leaving Black Americans susceptible to many smoking-related illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, and stroke — their three leading causes of death.

Read More: A Nationwide Ban on Menthol Cigarettes Could Be Coming, and It’s Dividing Racial Justice Advocates

It is estimated that banning menthol flavoring in cigarettes would save up to 654,000 lives over the next 40 years.

In 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced rules for a proposed ban in an attempt to close the open loophole lingering from the 2009 act. It divided advocates. Some were praising the public health win. Others worried a ban on products marketed to Black Americans would further contribute to criminalization.

They’ve been speaking out about fears that an illicit market could arise, and that the crackdown on the products’ manufacturing and sale would fall on Black Americans. Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner — who was killed by police in New York City when they accused him of illegally selling loose cigarettes — has also been cautioning against the ban.

In October, the rules went to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for review, but final approval has yet to be issued.

The delay stunned those who were gearing up to celebrate. It felt as if the fire department was called, took 60 years to show up to the crisis, started to come down the street, got close but decided to make a U-turn instead, said Dr. Jerome Adams, a former U.S. surgeon general, on a recent call with Capital B.

“We have a problem that multiple administrations are dragging their feet on,” he said.

Adams and Dr. Regina Benjamin, who also served as a U.S. surgeon general, recently penned an editorial piling on the pressure to move forward with a ban. Smoking, they said, has been a hallmark of their office for the past five decades.

Benjamin grew up in Alabama, surrounded by smoking and Big Tobacco marketing like the Kool Jazz Festival. Her mother, who started smoking as a teen, died of lung cancer — her uncle, too, of smoking-related causes. She has seen the devastating effects of menthol smoking in her practice in the rural South.

“If Black lives matter, then removing menthols off the market matters,” said Adams.

Organizations like the National Medical Association, National Council of Negro Women, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, and the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council have also joined the push toward a ban. As have public health groups, like the American Lung Association and American Heart Association, hundreds of faith leaders, and historically Black colleges and universities.

“We urge you to move as quickly as possible to finalize and implement these rules which will save Black lives,” wrote the heads of three HBCU medical schools in a letter to the Biden administration. Dated Jan. 29, the officials from the Morehouse School of Medicine, Meharry Medical College, and the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science encouraged government officials to finish the job.

“The prohibition on the sale of menthol cigarettes is long overdue.”

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