Biden Delays Ban on Menthol Cigarettes

The Biden administration said on Friday that it was delaying a decision on whether to ban menthol cigarettes, effectively quashing a proposal that has divided Black American voters and fueled million-dollar lobbying campaigns from the tobacco industry in this presidential election year.

The White House has faced considerable resistance from the cigarette companies that would lose billions of dollars if they could no longer sell menthol cigarettes. Opponents took to the airwaves to warn of a spike in cartel traffic along the border from counterfeit cigarette smuggling and of police violence targeting Black residents if a ban were in force.

Those efforts posed risks for President Biden, whose support among Black voters has at times slipped in recent months.

Some of Mr. Biden’s top health officials have said that a ban would save lives and protect against lung cancer, which is a higher risk for Black smokers, who have historically favored menthol cigarettes and are heavily targeted by tobacco companies.

“This rule has garnered historic attention, and the public comment period has yielded an immense amount of feedback, including from various elements of the civil rights and criminal justice movement,” Xavier Becerra, the health and human services secretary, said in a statement. “It’s clear that there are still more conversations to have, and that will take significantly more time.”

The decision highlighted a debate among senior federal officials over how to weigh the political and legal consequences of a ban against public health.

A White House spokeswoman declined to comment and referred to Mr. Becerra’s statement.

Mr. Becerra, the administration’s highest-ranking health official, said in an interview earlier this year that he had continued to push the White House to support the ban.

“We started to pull together all the elements of a good proposal to move on something we’ve known for decades: that menthol is killing Americans in disproportionate numbers when it comes to smoking,” he said.

“It should surprise no one that we’re continuing to push ’til the very end,” he said in the interview.

Dr. Robert Califf, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner and a supporter of the ban, told House lawmakers at a budget hearing this month that he hoped regulators would be able to issue a decision by the end of the year.

“It’s one of our top priorities, so I would sure hope so,” he said.

Dr. Califf said that as a cardiologist who had practiced for more than three decades, he had seen more people die from tobacco-related illness “than almost any physician, because I was an intensivist who dealt with the end stage of the disease.”

“From the point of view of the F.D.A. and me as an individual, given what I’ve seen in my life, we’re talking about over the next 30 years, probably 600,000 deaths that could be averted,” Dr. Califf said. Most would be Black Americans who are consumers the industry targets, he added.

The F.D.A. had previously described the effort as a “critical piece” of Mr. Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, noting that about 30 percent of all cancer deaths are caused by smoking. Studies projected that a ban could avert as many as 650,000 smoking-related deaths.

A majority of the Congressional Black Caucus supported the ban. On Friday, Derrick Johnson, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., rebuked the president, saying Mr. Biden was choosing politics over people’s lives.

“Today’s news from the Biden administration is a blow to the Black community, who continue to be unfairly targeted and unjustly killed by Big Tobacco,” Mr. Johnson said. “Let’s be clear — valuing Black lives should not be used as a pawn to get our people to the polls, but rather a platform that our leaders refuse to step down from.”

Democrats have fretted for months about Mr. Biden’s soft support among Black voters — in particular Black men. Polls have consistently shown Mr. Biden with support from a substantially smaller percentage of Black men than he had in the 2020 election, which was itself a smaller portion than Democratic presidential candidates took in prior elections.

The ban had also united an array of public health groups, including leading lung, heart, cancer and pediatric associations.

They cited years of data suggesting that menthol cigarettes, long marketed to African American smokers, make it more palatable to start smoking and more difficult to stop. Many of those groups expressed outrage on Friday about the delay, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

“The White House fell for industry rhetoric and, as a result, public health will suffer,” said Dr. Karen E. Knudsen, the chief executive of the American Cancer Society.

The F.D.A. formally proposed the ban in May 2022, saying there were 18.5 million smokers who preferred menthol brands in the United States. Researchers looking at similar moves in other nations estimated that a ban could result in nearly a quarter of menthol smokers quitting altogether.

The proposal made its way to the White House in October. Soon, official calendars were flooded with meeting requests from not only supporters of the ban but also from opponents, which included tobacco companies, convenience stores and gas station retailers. They projected that the ban would cost them billions of dollars in sales.

Reynolds American, which makes Newport menthol cigarettes, gave millions of dollars in recent years to political action funds that benefit Republican lawmakers, as well as $1 million in February to a fund supporting former President Donald J. Trump.

“We strongly believe there are more effective ways to transition adult smokers away from cigarettes permanently,” Luis Pinto, a spokesman for Reynolds, said in a statement. “We believe that providing access to potentially safer nicotine alternatives, like appropriately regulated flavored vaping products — including menthol — are critical in supporting adult smokers to migrate from combustible cigarettes.”

Altria, which makes some menthol Marlboro cigarettes, donated less than Reynolds, but also contributed to funds supporting Republican lawmakers.

Republicans in Congress have denounced the proposed ban in letters to the Biden administration, warning that it would increase trafficking of counterfeit cigarettes. Republicans also mounted a failed effort last year to keep 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 have helped promote some Black leaders’ concerns that a ban would encourage law enforcement to target Black smokers. (The F.D.A. has said such a ban would be enforced on manufacturers.)

The Biden campaign has gone to significant lengths to bolster its support among Black voters. It road-tested a series of get-out-the-vote methods and strategies in South Carolina ahead of the state’s first-in-the-nation Democratic primary in February, and has since devoted resources and staged campaign events aimed at Black voters in key general election battleground states.

Reynolds has argued the ban would have “serious unintended consequences,” including more counterfeit cigarette use. Altria has raised the same argument and has also said that historically low and declining youth smoking rates do not justify pursuing a ban.

Convenience store owners who predicted that the ban would cost them billions staged a demonstration in November in front of the Manhattan office of Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader. On hand were members of the National Action Network, who have acknowledged accepting tobacco funding over the years.

They invited Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who died after a police officer who suspected of him selling loose cigarettes placed him in a chokehold. She warned at the event that a menthol ban would increase such encounters with the police. “This will create more havoc in the Black and brown communities,” she said.

In an interview after the event, Ms. Carr said she had not received money from tobacco companies. “I can’t be bought,” she said.

The F.D.A. had previously said that it expected to see the menthol ban finalized by the end of 2023. As months passed, public health groups amped up pressure, staging a “menthol funeral” outside the White House in January to highlight the lost opportunity to extend lives and curb smoking-related disease.

In April, Action on Smoking & Health, an advocacy group, and the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council sued the administration in a bid for action.

“Tobacco industry arguments have prevailed over public health,” Laurent Huber, the executive director of Action on Smoking & Health, said in a statement Friday. “There is no scientific research to support continuing to sell mentholated tobacco products.”.

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