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Timeline for menthol ban slips again

Another delay could push the date beyond the 2024 November election

Packs of menthol-flavored and non-menthol cigarettes are displayed for sale in a smoke shop on April 28, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Packs of menthol-flavored and non-menthol cigarettes are displayed for sale in a smoke shop on April 28, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The White House’s timeline for banning menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars appears to have slipped again after the administration missed its self-imposed target to finalize the rules by March.

Questions of political fallout from the bans — menthol cigarettes in particular — have swirled since the Food and Drug Administration proposed the rules in April 2022. The administration already delayed the timeline once before, from August to March.

The Office of Management and Budget has one more meeting regarding the rule on its calendar. That meeting is scheduled with lobbying firm Forbes Tate Partners, which represents tobacco giant Altria, on April 2.

This is the third time the FDA has attempted to restrict menthol cigarettes, first in 2013 and again in 2018. Another delay could push the date beyond the 2024 November election, as President Joe Biden likely faces a tough fight against former President Donald Trump. Biden’s approval rating currently rests at 40 percent, according to Gallup.

The FDA estimates around 18.5 million people smoke menthols, including teens, and menthol cigarettes are especially popular with Black smokers. Roughly eight in 10 Black adult smokers reported using menthols in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The issue has pitted law enforcement groups against public health advocates, spawned ad campaigns and divided Black lawmakers and interest groups. Concerns include heavier policing on minority smokers — a theory that many public health advocates dismiss as industry fearmongering. 

The industry opposes the menthol ban, arguing that prohibitions do not work. 

“As with Prohibition in the 1920s, FDA’s proposal to ban menthol cigarettes will create unregulated, illegal markets, encourage criminal activity, and threaten the integrity of the regulatory system itself — consequences FDA has not considered,” Altria, the owner of Marlboro cigarettes, wrote to the FDA when the rule was first proposed.

Critics of the proposed bans also point to the lack of resources to help current smokers quit, including the FDA’s ongoing rejections of flavored e-cigarettes. Many manufacturers are challenging those product denials in court.

The White House did not comment.

On Thursday, Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., and Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind., wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to encourage more focus on bringing new pharmaceutical cessation therapies to market.

“To date, there are only three FDA-approved smoking cessation therapies,” the lawmakers wrote. “No new treatment has been approved in almost 20 years. While these therapies are effective, more effective treatments should be encouraged.”

Public health advocates are pressuring Biden to act, underscoring how the ban would reinforce the administration’s commitment to health equity and his Cancer Moonshot initiative. 

“There is no scientific evidence to support the White House’s decision to not fully prohibit menthol flavoring in cigarettes and all flavors in cigars,” said Karen Knudsen, CEO of the American Cancer Society and American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “This continued inaction is a shocking deference to the tobacco industry, which has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to profit from products that result in death.” 

“There is absolutely no reason to further delay a policy that the FDA has studied for more than 12 years, is supported by overwhelming scientific evidence, and will save hundreds of thousands of lives,” said Yolonda Richardson, president and CEO of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

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