Review Process Extended into Next Year, Anti-Tobacco Groups Concerned
White House officials have announced that they will need more time to review the comprehensive plan proposed by U.S. health regulators to ban menthol cigarettes. This unexpected delay has raised fears among anti-tobacco groups that the long-awaited rule may be in jeopardy.
The process, according to an updated regulatory agenda posted online, is now expected to continue into next year, with March being targeted as the implementation date. Previously, it was widely anticipated that the rule would be published either in late 2023 or early January.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has devoted years to developing this plan, with the goal of eliminating menthol and potentially preventing 300,000 to 650,000 smoking-related deaths over the course of several decades. The majority of these preventable deaths would be among Black Americans, who are disproportionately menthol cigarette smokers.
Past efforts by the FDA to address menthol have faced obstacles such as pushback from the tobacco industry or competing political priorities across different administrations. This latest delay has occurred amidst concerns from some Democrats about President Joe Biden’s chances in a future election against Donald Trump.
Anti-smoking groups have been steadfastly supporting this proposal for years. However, some are now warning that the rule, which would require cigarette companies to phase out menthol flavors within a year, could be indefinitely held up.
“Any delay in finalizing the FDA’s menthol rule would be a gift to the tobacco industry at the expense of Black lives,” said Yolanda Richardson, CEO of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “We urge the administration to keep its promise and issue a final rule by the end of this year.”
Menthol Remains the Only Unbanned Cigarette Flavor
Under the 2009 law granting the FDA authority over tobacco products, menthol is the only cigarette flavor that has not been banned. The cooling effect of menthol makes it easier to start smoking and harder to quit, leading to its popularity. Approximately 85% of Black smokers purchase menthol cigarettes.
The FDA sent its final version of the regulation to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget in October, typically the last step before a rule is released. However, the White House has agreed to hold numerous meetings with groups opposing the ban, including civil rights advocates, business owners, and law enforcement officials. Notably, these groups opposing the ban have received donations from tobacco companies.
Over 60 meetings on the rule have been scheduled with budget office staff, with discussions set to continue until January. Government records show that only three of these meetings have been with health groups.
The attention this issue is receiving from influential African American leaders and senior members of the Biden administration is underscored by a meeting held on November 20. Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, Kendrick Meek (a former congressman and current lobbyist with a law firm that represents the tobacco company Reynolds American), and more than two dozen government officials, including FDA Commissioner Robert Califf and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, attended this virtual meeting. The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which has received funding from cigarette manufacturers, including Reynolds, requested the meeting. The group has been running ads in local Washington media warning that a menthol ban would harm police-community relations.
The FDA and health advocates have consistently rejected such concerns, emphasizing that the rule would only be enforced against companies involved in the production or sale of cigarettes, not individual smokers.
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