Latest Delay Sparks Mixed Reactions

F.D.A. Prepares To Release Its Plan To Ban Menthol Cigarettes

Source: Michael M. Santiago / Getty

There were mixed responses along political, ideological and sociological lines after President Joe Biden’s administration announced that it would be instituting yet another delay in its plans to move forward with banning menthol cigarettes.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announced the update on Friday and said the decision about proposed rules to ban menthol cigarettes and other menthol-flavored tobacco products “will take significantly more time” than previously expected.

The move came as Biden and his surrogates have been courting the support of Black voters. Data shows that racial minorities like Black people are more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes.

As such, the pending ban has divided certain leaders within the Black community in a rift that was apparent among reactions to Becerra’s announcement.

Gwen Carr, whose son Eric Garner was choked to death by a gang of NYPD officers who accused him of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes in public in 2014, welcomed the delay.

“I worked diligently trying to avoid the menthol ban because it was personal to me. My son, Eric Garner, died as a result of police crackdowns on the sale of loose cigarettes. I realized this ban would only create more unintended law enforcement consequences like the very ones that lead to my son’s death,” Carr said in a statement emailed to NewsOne.

The National Action Network (NAN), which has worked with Carr and other people advocating against a menthol ban, suggested that there are civil rights considerations that need to be taken before any potential ban is put in place.

“There are well-funded people in favor of the ban on cigarette menthol cigarettes, and there are those of us, who have historically received support for our conventions from tobacco companies, that have not stopped because they owe our community, although there has been no advocacy done because of this,” NAN said. “We would hope that both those menthol ban advocates and others on our side can sit down with the administration and work out a mid-ground that protects all smokers (not just Blacks) and protects our civil liberties at the same time.”

Yolonda C. Richardson, the President and CEO, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, begs to differ.

Richardson has long stressed the need for a menthol ban as a matter of life and death that puts profit over public health.

“It is unacceptable and deeply harmful to public health that the Biden Administration today has once again delayed issuing the final rule to prohibit menthol cigarettes. This decision prioritizes politics over lives, especially Black lives,” Richardson said. “It is especially disturbing to see the Administration parrot the false claims of the tobacco industry about support from the civil rights community. The fact is the menthol rule is overwhelmingly supported by Black civil rights, faith, public health, medical and other organizations – leading organizations like the NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women Inc., the National Medical Association, the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, and many others. It is also supported by a majority of the Congressional Black Caucus. The groups opposing the rule are paid by the tobacco industry to spread false, fearmongering messages. It is shocking that the Administration is repeating the claims of a tobacco industry that has repeatedly lied to the public and is willing to say and do anything to protect its profits.”

The argument for a menthol ban now

Proponents and opponents of the proposed rules agree that tobacco is a “killer of Black people,” but they remain divided along ideological lines as each side says they’re working on behalf of the best interest of Black smokers.

In particular, some activists in the Black community have denounced the proposal as being racist and having serious “policing” consequences while questioning why there isn’t the same energy toward all tobacco products.

Carol McGruder, the co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, of which she is a founding member, previously described the proposed rules to NewsOne as a “first big step that will prevent another generation of our people from getting hooked.”

McGruder, a Black woman who has been honored with the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Engagement Award for her tobacco control work in San Francisco, underscored the effect of the commercial marketing of menthol products in the Black community.

“Our community has been preyed upon for decades. The impact, legacy and tentacles of the tobacco industry’s targeting run deep in our community,” McGruder said before adding: “This is happening!! Cities, counties, states and national initiatives are underway to help our Black smokers. Our people can and will quit, they just need the proper support. We need them alive and healthy and thriving. They need to know their community is behind them.”

Marguder said the menthol ban is also needed now to address what she said was an “egregious omission” from an Obama-era law ​​that regulates the manufacturing, distribution and marketing of tobacco products.

“In 2009 when President Obama signed the Tobacco Control Act, all flavored combustible cigarettes were taken off the market EXCEPT menthol. Menthol was left on the market and this omission is unpardonable,” McGruder said. “We have been waiting for fourteen years and counting. In those fourteen years another generation of Black people have become addicted, we have waited too long for our government to give us the same protection other citizens were afforded. It is long overdue and time to correct the egregious omission of menthol.”

Another argument in favor of the ban is that menthol cigarettes are more addictive than regular ones, in part because the menthol flavor makes “smoke inhalation easier to tolerate and therefore promote nicotine addiction and smoking-related illness,” scientists at Yale concluded in a 2012 study. That research also determined that menthol cigarettes posed the worst risk to children, who not only find them easier to smoke because of the flavor but are also more frequently exposed to them at a younger age.

The argument against a menthol ban

Dr. Benjamin Chavis, the President and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and former national NAACP leader, has said that banning menthol cigarettes would not eliminate the demand for them and instead result in black market sales — not unlike what led to Garner’s police killing.

“There are many groups who still do not understand the unintended consequences of this proposed ban,” Chavis said at an event last summer called “When Good People Write Bad Policy” that addressed the menthol ban. “For leaders in Washington to consider this ban without consulting Black and Brown officers is disastrous. Let’s sit down with the proponents and first conduct a Racial Impact Study. Targeting in the past doesn’t justify targeting now. We are against racial targeting and profiling. All of it.”

Other critics of the ban like the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson have expressed similar concerns that introducing a criminal element to smoking menthol cigarettes would likely disproportionately affect the same Black people the ban is supposed to be helping.

“Given all the ways that Americans of all races manage to obtain illicit mood-altering substances of all kinds, we should anticipate the emergence of an underground market in menthol cigarettes,” Robinson wrote in a column in 2020.

Political implications

The pending menthol ban has become a political tool amid partisan efforts to appeal to more Black voters.

CNN reported in February ahead of the South Carolina primary — which is largely seen as the first chance Black voters have to participate in the national primary election process — that “Republicans and conservative groups are trying to determine whether leveraging this issue [of banning menthol cigarettes] can influence voter behavior and reduce the president’s vote count.”

The latest CNN national poll of voters about the upcoming 2024 presidential election placed Donald Trump ahead of Biden by as many as nine percentage points. Trump’s lead could be fueled in part by Biden losing support among Black male voters, as found in a Wall Street Journal poll published earlier this month.

More from the Wall Street Journal poll:

While most Black men said they intend to support Biden, some 30% of them in the poll said they were either definitely or probably going to vote for the former Republican president. There isn’t comparable WSJ swing-state polling from 2020, but Trump received votes from 12% of Black men nationwide that year, as recorded by AP VoteCast, a large poll of the electorate.

In the WSJ poll, 11% of Black women said they were either definitely or probably going to vote for Trump. In 2020, the AP poll found, 6% of Black women nationwide backed Trump.

What the data on menthol cigarettes says

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 77% of Black smokers prefer menthol cigarettes. That’s because, the CDC says, “the tobacco industry has aggressively marketed menthol products to young people and African Americans, especially in urban communities.”

Further, Black people die from diseases related to tobacco use at a higher rate than whites even though Blacks smoke fewer cigarettes and start smoking at an older age than white people do, according to the CDC.

One study found that menthol cigarettes were marketed to African American youth in a “predatory” manner through ads and lower prices near many California high schools. Another study released in the American Journal of Public Health showed that banning menthol cigarettes could save as much as 600,000 premature deaths by the year 2050.

Thus, health experts at Washington University in St. Louis concluded that the menthol ban would benefit young Black people the most.

FDA officials have said they expect the menthol ban to lead to nearly 1 million smokers quitting altogether, including about 230,000 who are Black.

Meanwhile, sales for menthol cigarettes have remained at a consistent level while sales of regular cigarettes have dipped slightly, according to the most recent statistics available. The cigarette business is nearly a trillion-dollar industry with an expected growth rate of 1.8% from now through 2028.

This is America.


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