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White House drops plan to ban menthol cigarettes

Move comes amid tight campaign between Biden and Trump

The Biden administration on Friday formally dropped a proposal to ban menthol cigarettes amid concerns about a tight campaign between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, as well as concerns about increased policing of the Black community.
The Biden administration on Friday formally dropped a proposal to ban menthol cigarettes amid concerns about a tight campaign between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, as well as concerns about increased policing of the Black community. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The Biden administration on Friday announced it is dropping — for now ― a plan to ban menthol cigarettes after months of speculation about the proposal’s future.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra did not say when or if the administration would revisit the issue, nor did he mention the fate of a related proposal to ban flavored cigars.

“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,” he said. “It’s clear that there are still more conversations to have, and that will take significantly more time.”

The decision caps a yearslong fight between the tobacco industry looking to kill the rule and anti-smoking advocates — including a number of African American interest groups, such as the NAACP — trying to get the ban across the finish line. It now marks another footnote in the decades of debate over the issue.

Concerns over the politics amid President Joe Biden’s tight rematch with former President Donald Trump and fears of increased policing on people of color ultimately tanked the proposal. Menthol cigarettes are far more popular with Black smokers than white smokers, and the issue has divided Black leaders and interest groups. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf, along with previous commissioners on both sides of the aisle, has pushed for the White House to finalize the ban.

Critics allege that while the rule targets only manufacturers and retailers, police officers would be tasked with enforcing it against consumers. The FDA has also not done enough to transition addicted smokers away from traditional cigarettes, critics argue, pointing to the fact that the agency has not yet authorized any menthol e-cigarettes.

Friday’s announcement was met with criticism from the American Heart Association.

“Two full years after releasing proposed rules backed by extensive scientific evidence – and more than a decade since the FDA began examining menthol cigarettes – the administration has failed to take decisive action to remove these deadly, addictive products from the market,” CEO Nancy Brown said in a statement. “The administration’s inaction is enabling the tobacco industry to continue aggressively marketing these products and attracting and addicting new users.”

Illinois Democratic Rep. Robin Kelly, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust, lamented the decision.

“I am deeply disappointed that the FDA has chosen to abandon its established plan to ban menthol cigarettes,” she said in a statement. “The FDA’s experts have been clear that menthol cigarettes are harmful to public health. This is a commonsense plan which could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”

The FDA proposed the rule in May 2022 but then missed two self-imposed timelines to finalize it in August and March. The administration has not indicated whether it plans to move forward with another proposal to limit nicotine in cigarettes, which was originally scheduled to be released in April.

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