The Biden administration is delaying its decision on whether to ban menthol cigarettes due to intense lobbying from tobacco companies, convenience stores and industry-backed groups who say billions of dollars in sales and jobs will be lost , a senior administration official confirmed on Wednesday.
The proposal also sparked concerns that black smokers would become targets of aggressive police tactics, although some black leaders, top lawmakers and government officials dispute that claim and say tobacco companies are funding and fueling those fears.
The plan to phase out menthol cigarettes has been years in the making. The Food and Drug Administration formally proposed an official rule last year aimed at reducing health disparities, citing statistics that about 85% of black smokers prefer menthol brands. Black men especially face considerable health risks, including high rates of lung cancer and smoking-related deaths.
In recent months, dozens of groups have met with administration officials to discuss the proposal. Tobacco companies and convenience store groups fighting the ban have aligned with the National Action Network, founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, to make the argument about the potential for racial targeting by police. The group attended a large meeting with tobacco lobbyists and senior administration officials on November 20.
Many other black organizations, including the majority of the Congressional Black Caucus, have rejected the policing argument as a cynical attempt to exploit trauma and distract from the harms of cigarettes.
“What we’re seeing now,” said Patrice Willoughby, vice president of political and legislative affairs for the NAACP, “is the reaction of a very well-organized industry that is peddling death to the black community.”
The FDA has said it would like to see the proposal finalized this year, and Michael Felberbaum, an agency spokesman, said Wednesday that it remains committed to issuing the rule “as quickly as possible.” The White House’s timeline for a decision on the ban has changed over the months, amid President Biden’s difficult re-election bid next year.
In recent weeks, public health groups have increasingly expressed concerns about the delays, urging administration officials to act quickly. The Washington Post earlier reported that the Biden administration would delay any action on the proposal until the spring.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois’ Democratic majority whip, addressed rumors of political motivations for the Senate delay on Wednesday, saying concerns that blacks would vote against the president in the upcoming election due to of the ban were “greatly exaggerated.”
“And I want to make it clear,” he said, “they are peddling stories – Big Tobacco is – that we are going to go out and arrest African Americans if they use menthol cigarettes . But that’s not the case at all.
The FDA said the ban would be enforced at the manufacturer level and not against individuals.
America’s largest tobacco companies have considerable financial interests in the menthol cigarette market, which, according to the Federal Trade Commission, accounts for just over a third of all U.S. cigarette sales. Sales of menthol cigarettes at Reynolds American, which makes Newport’s best-selling brand, total about $7 billion a year, according to a Goldman Sachs study.
Reynolds has vowed to fight the ban all the way to the Supreme Court, a battle that could delay implementation of the final ban rule by several years.
Altria, which makes mentholated Marlboros, and Reynolds have tried to soften their public image in recent years by promising a smoke-free future, marketing e-cigarettes like NJOY and popular Vuse products. Yet cigarettes still represent three-quarters of the US tobacco market, estimated at $76 billion, far behind alternatives like vapes, according to Goldman Sachs estimates.
Convenience store, gas station and wholesale groups also filled the White House meeting schedule, forecasting a loss of $34 billion in sales from menthol cigarettes, snacks and drinks purchased by customers, and flavored cigars that would be banned under a companion proposal. The menthol ban would not cover the sale of menthol e-cigarettes.
Mr. Biden’s administration called the effort a “critical part” of its Cancer Moonshot initiative, noting that about 30% of all cancer deaths are caused by smoking. The FDA has estimated that banning menthol could reduce smoking by 15 percent over 40 years. Studies predict that up to 650,000 smoking-related deaths could be avoided.
The agency proposed the ban more than a year ago and forwarded it to the White House in October. Public health groups have been left on the edge of their seats watching the White House calendar fill with meetings, mostly of opponents of the ban.
“Every day we wait is another day for Big Tobacco to attract new users and target communities with menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars,” Nancy Brown, executive director of the American Heart Association, said in a statement. “By banning the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, the administration would make historic progress in saving tobacco-related lives.”
Around 18.5 million smokers choose a menthol brand. Researchers say the refreshing sensation of the minty flavor makes it easier to start smoking and more difficult to quit. Public opinion polls have shown that about 60 percent of Americans support banning menthol cigarettes.
Tobacco companies have been criticized for decades for targeting black communities, with studies documenting industrial marketing of menthol cigarettes in magazines like Essence and Ebony, and with billboards and discounts targeting black neighborhoods.
Lobbying for the ban has been intense, with Reynolds and Altria donating millions of dollars in recent years to Republican-controlled super PACs and also spending millions lobbying Congress.
Some Republican lawmakers have opposed the ban, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, backed by a PAC that received $10,000 from Reynolds in late 2022. He wrote letters in July warning that the ban could give cartels of Mexican drugs a new illegal substance to traffic. .
A spokesman for Mr. Rubio said two Democrats had signed a similar letter and that their supporters supported the senator because they agreed with his agenda, not the other way around.
Some House Republicans also sent letters to the administration warning that the ban could have a disastrous effect on small businesses and could encourage cigarette smuggling that would benefit terrorist groups.
In June, a House appropriations bill included a provision that would have prohibited any spending necessary to impose the ban. Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican and physician, argued that a ban would “take products out of the legal system and into illicit markets,” thereby helping criminals and straining law enforcement.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida, introduced a measure to protect the ban, telling fellow House members they had “succumbed once again to Big Tobacco” and urging them to protect future generations . “We need to prevent more deaths,” she said.
The bill has stalled in the House and is unlikely to pass.
Opponents of the ban demonstrated last month outside the Manhattan office of Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader.
Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who died after a police officer put him in a chokehold, warned at the protest that a menthol ban would increase clashes with police. “This is going to create even more havoc in black and brown communities,” she said.
In an interview, Ms. Carr said she had not received money from tobacco companies. “I can’t be bought,” she said.
Ebonie Riley, senior vice president of the National Action Network, acknowledged that the group received money from tobacco companies, but declined to specify the amount. She said the group’s opposition to the menthol ban was not related to those donations.
“We do not condone any form of smoking, but we support adult decisions,” Ms Riley said.
Ms. Riley also attended one of the largest White House meetings on the ban late last month. Participants included senior White House officials; Dr. Robert Califf, FDA Commissioner; and Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Health and Human Services. The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officials, which for years named Reynolds as a sponsor and received funding from Altria, was also in attendance.
Opponents of the ban provided White House officials with a report released by a task force in Massachusetts, where flavored tobacco has been banned for years, that recommended criminal prosecution for possession or sale of banned products. Tobacco companies argued that such a provision would lead to increased use of force by police in minority communities.
Reynolds representatives also met twice with White House officials in November, said Luis Pinto, a company spokesman. He said the company claimed the bans were not effective and that the FDA had vastly underestimated the cost of keeping illegal menthol cigarettes out of the country.
Mr. Pinto said White House officials had inquired about the issue, and Reynolds followed up on an FDA report estimating that the app would cost about $659,000 a year for the work of five employees.
“The illicit cigarette market is already thriving; and a ban on menthol will only fuel the size, scope and scale of this market, as millions of menthol cigarette smokers will seek a replacement,” according to a follow-up letter sent by Reynolds on November 14. David Sutton, Altria spokesperson. , said the company was also concerned about illicit sales as well as loss of tax revenue and jobs.
“We believe that equitable harm reduction, not banning, is the best path forward, and that the FDA should authorize smoke-free products and encourage adult smokers to transition to a smoke-free future,” he said. Sutton said in an email.
David A. Fahrenthold, Pierre Boulanger And Shane Goldmacher reports contributed. Kitty Bennett contributed to the research.