Biden administration delays plans to ban menthol cigarettes

The Biden Administration has delayed plans to ban menthol cigarettes, a proposal announced by the Food and Drug Administration years ago.

“There are still more conversations to have, and that will take significantly more time,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement Friday.

The FDA announced its plans to ban menthol tobacco cigarettes in 2021, followed by its proposed rules for the ban in 2022. The move was aimed to improve the health of those most likely to smoke them, including kids and Black Americans.

According to the FDA, nearly 85% of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, compared to just 30% of white smokers. Black men have the highest lung cancer death rate in the U.S. and both Black men and women are far less likely to be diagnosed with the disease at an early stage, when it is often more treatable, than white Americans.

The proposed ban — and now the delay — has raised questions about the effect it could have on Black voters months before a contentious presidential election.

The ban has already been delayed at least once, with promises of it being enacted by the end of last year coming and going. At the time, the White House quietly updated its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs website to reflect that any final ban on menthol wouldn’t happen until at least March.

At the time of the December delay, one official with a national public health group working to remove the products from the market told NBC News they were “deeply concerned” the ban would not take effect before the 2024 election.

“Everything gets harder to do in an election year because people are distracted and bandwidth is stretched,” the official said in December.

Becerra’s statement did not indicate if or when the ban would be enacted by the Biden Administration and provided no further details on conversations around it.

After the delay was announced Friday afternoon, anti-smoking and health advocates began expressing their frustration.

“Two full years after releasing proposed rules backed 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 deadly, addictive products from the market,” Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, said in a statement. “The administration’s inaction is enabling the tobacco industry to continue aggressively marketing these products and attracting and addicting new users.”

The American Lung Association’s President and CEO Harold Wimmer said the organization is “deeply dismayed” that the White House keeps delaying action.

“Every day that President Biden fails to finalize these rules, he loses an incredible opportunity to reduce the death and disease associated with tobacco use. Ending the sale of menthol cigarettes would have helped eliminate the dramatic health inequities in who uses tobacco products in the United States,” Wimmer said in the statement.

Laurent Huber, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, said that 789,724 Americans who smoke every day, including 199,732 Black smokers, are expected to quit once the ban is enacted.

Carol McGruder, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council echoed dismay after the delay. “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,” McGruder said in a statement.

“Hundreds of thousands of Black Americans will die in the years to come because of today’s inaction,” she said. “Shame on you, President Biden!”

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