White House considers menthol ban amid health concerns and political pressure

White House officials have made one of the most important public health decisions of Biden’s presidency, according to six administration officials who spoke about the terms: He said he is working on whether to enact a national tobacco ban. Internal reviews can be discussed anonymously.

The years-long debate over banning menthol cigarettes has pitted public health officials who say the measure would effectively save hundreds of thousands of black lives over the next few decades, and a popular debate in the black community. It is at odds with political advisers who warn that banning the product could cost Mr. Biden support. Crucial votes are at risk ahead of what is expected to be a close election.

The Biden administration has already delayed a decision on the ban, which was originally expected last summer.

Supporters of the ban include Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Domestic Policy Director Neera Tanden and Daniel Carnival, who coordinates the administration’s cancer moonshot plan, said a person familiar with internal deliberations. people told The Washington Post. These officials and their allies cited the harms of their products, particularly the 45,000 black lives lost annually to menthol cigarettes, and told their colleagues to ignore a flurry of last-minute protests. urged.

“Look, this is about the tobacco industry, a toxic industry,” said a senior government official who participated in the deliberations. “We should not be fooled by their tactics.”

Meanwhile, Stephen K. Benjamin, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, laid out arguments from skeptics that the ban could backfire among black voters, but the message was This was amplified by former Democratic Party members who have cooperated. Benjamin, who served as a political consultant to anti-tobacco advocates before taking the White House, has also met with public health groups supporting the ban and made similar arguments.

Benjamin, a former mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, spent part of Monday with Mr. Biden in South Carolina as the president visited for campaigning. Benjamin did not respond to requests for comment.

Biden faces an internal deadline next week to finalize the rules to ensure they take full effect during his term.

Public health officials have warned that menthol cigarettes are particularly addictive because they enhance the effects of nicotine on the brain, creating a cooling sensation and making the smoke less unpleasant and easier to smoke.

While several officials have characterized the decision to ban menthol as a fiasco, at least one key leader is concerned about its prospects.

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf, whose agency is overseeing the ban’s rollout, has no intention of delaying the ban further or effectively banning it, according to four people who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. He reportedly told allies he was resigning to the White House to freeze the situation. .

The White House declined to comment, citing the ongoing rulemaking process.

FDA spokesman Michael Felberbaum did not respond to questions about Mr. Khalif’s comments or specific elements of the rulemaking process, but said the FDA is planning to implement a ban on menthol and a second ban on flavored tobacco in cigars. He said he “continues to work” on the rules.

“These product standards remain our top priority,” Felberbaum said.

Mr. Becerra met with White House officials this week to have final discussions about the need to ban menthol cigarettes, five officials said. HHS declined to comment. White House regulators are expected to complete their review of the FDA’s final rule banning menthol cigarettes by next week, according to two people familiar with the regulation.

Decisions after that will be left to Biden and his top advisers.

“People die every day.”

Congress and the Obama administration banned other flavored cigarettes in 2009, but left menthol products, which are smoked by about 19 million Americans, on the market. Cigarettes are disproportionately popular in Black communities, with more than 80% of Black smokers choosing menthol brands in 2020, compared to 34% of white smokers, according to data cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. chose the menthol brand.

Carol McGruder, co-founder of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, said the tobacco industry has lured Black smokers with decades of free giveaways and targeted, predatory marketing. , pointed to advertisements in magazines such as Ebony and Jet that featured people smoking fashionable menthol. .

Prominent black Democrats like the Rev. Al Sharpton have argued that it’s unfair to target a product favored by the black community, which has historically received funding from the tobacco industry, and has called for a ban on menthol. I’ve been refusing for years.

“There’s no question about it. There’s no doubt that smoking is bad for your health…but if it’s a health problem, why not ban all cigarettes?” Sharpton said at the 2019 event He said this:

They also claim that the ban could lead to the false arrests of menthol smokers, but this argument has been roundly rejected by public health and legal experts, stating that the ban targets only smokers. rather than manufacturers, distributors, and retailers.

“No one should have to choose between protecting Black people’s health from deadly and addictive tobacco products and keeping Black people safe from police violence,” a coalition of public health groups wrote to the White House last month. sent. “We can and must do both.”

Rep. James E. Clyburn, D.C., one of Mr. Biden’s key advisers, said a ban was undecided. A longtime lawmaker who has advised the president on issues affecting black communities told The Sunday Post he had not discussed the menthol ban with Biden or White House officials.

“I’m going to meet with the staff. [this] Clyburn added that there is “no way to know” whether the menthol ban will affect Biden’s support among Black voters.

Other lawmakers cited a White House announcement last year that the ban could prevent up to 654,000 deaths in the United States over the next 40 years, including 238,000 African-Americans. and said it focuses on the negative effects of tobacco. He also said that even if some voters were upset, many voters would reward a president who stands up to the tobacco industry.

“What we do [in politics]”Every day, it makes some people happy and makes some people angry,” said Rep. Robin Kelly, who heads the Congressional Black Caucus’ health care task force and urged Biden to finalize the ban. (Democrat, Illinois) said. “But people die from cancer every day.”

dueling message campaign

Since the White House announced in December that it was delaying a decision on the menthol ban again, suggesting a new target date for finalizing the rules would be March, advocates and lobbyists have been calling on the administration to send dueling messages. We are flooded with campaigns.

Opponents of the ban distributed a poll memo from Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher warning that outlawing the product would alienate key voters in battleground states and hurt Biden’s re-election prospects. . The cost of the vote was paid for by tobacco company Altria Group, which opposes the ban. Belcher did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The White House met with several former Democratic senators, including North Carolina’s GK Butterfield, who argued that the ban would criminalize menthol smoking and harm black communities. Butterfield, who resigned from Congress in 2022 and became a lobbyist for Altria last year, counts Altria as one of its largest donors, but did not respond to requests for comment.

Other lobbyists have made similar claims. “The menthol ban on these popular products will not simply disappear,” the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) wrote in a newsletter last month, urging its members to contact the White House. “Rather, it will push current users into illicit markets, ultimately harming our communities and negatively impacting businesses run by responsible retailers.”

Anti-tobacco groups have run ads of mayors supporting the ban and citing the president’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative and accompanying pledge to “eradicate cancer as we know it.” It is strengthening its own appeal.

“We can’t save lives from cancer without reducing tobacco use, and we can’t reduce tobacco use without eliminating menthol, the signature flavor of cigarettes, and eliminating all of the signature flavor of cigars. It cannot be reduced,” the political arm of the American Cancer Society and 21 other cancer-fighting organizations implored Mr. Biden. In last month’s letter.

Civil rights groups say fears that the ban could jeopardize Biden’s re-election are overblown.

“It’s a red herring argument to say there’s a political risk in this ninth hour,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said in a statement from last week at the Tobacco Free Kids Campaign’s expense. This is what he said in an advertising campaign he started running online. Anti-tobacco advocacy group. “Unfortunately, we are now at a crossroads between tobacco industry lobbyists and the people they have paid to convey bad and false messages.”

The administration faces time pressure to make a decision, with public health officials giving until Jan. 20, 12 months before next year’s presidential inauguration, to solidify industry requirements that will take a year to take effect. They are planning to finalize and publish the regulations. A new administration could overturn them. Further delays could make the menthol ban subject to the Congressional Review Act, which would allow Congress to overturn the rules if announced near the end of the year. Some officials worry that even if Biden wins, delaying a decision on the menthol ban until after the election will give opponents more time to attack it.

Officials also said the fight over menthol reflects short-term political calculations that hinder long-term public health goals, such as reversing stagnation in U.S. life expectancy.

Public health experts across multiple administrations have worked to crack down on menthol cigarettes. Scott Gottlieb, who served as FDA commissioner in the Trump administration, led the 2018 effort, which received bipartisan support from Democrats. The effort stalled after Gottlieb left the agency in 2019. The Trump administration never released the proposed rules.

Some officials said in interviews that they were frustrated that momentum around Biden’s ban, which the FDA first promised would take effect in April 2021, has stalled amid attacks from some former Democratic lawmakers. He said he was holding a Officials and advocates said they were particularly upset by claims by some opponents that targeting cigarettes, which are favored by black communities, was motivated by racism.

“The fact that menthol remained on the market is racism,” said McGruder, a longtime anti-tobacco advocate. “That’s what has continued to exploit and kill black people.”

Public health advocates said they will continue to press Biden to finalize the rules. The American Heart Association and other groups plan to hold a “menthol funeral” outside the White House next week, with processions, planned services and even a mock casket to honor the lives of Black people taken by menthol cigarettes. be done.

“We really want to send a message to the Biden administration that this problem is not going away,” said McGruder, who is helping organize the event scheduled for Jan. 18. But we have the will and we have the fight. ”

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