Axios Pro Exclusive Content

CBC presses Biden to finalize menthol ban

Illustration of a cigarette resting on an ash tray with a vote button inlayed.

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Some Congressional Black Caucus members are joining public health groups in pressing the Biden administration to finalize a ban on menthol cigarettes that are aggressively marketed to Black communities and blamed for contributing to health disparities.

  • But CBC members aren't all on the same page on whether the ban should be a top priority in an election year.

Why it matters: Continued inaction on an issue that's been touch and go through two administrations has already left some questioning whether the administration is putting politics over science, fearing a ban could alienate some Black voters.

What they're saying: "The closer it gets to an election year, the more there's the potential for politics to get in the way. We feel strongly that this is the administration's rule. They drafted it. They put it through the vetting process. They know that the science is solid," said Yolonda Richardson, CEO of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group.

  • "Our question has always been, if there's no argument on the science, why now are you deciding to take your foot off the pedal?" she said.
  • "We need to get it done," Rep. Robin Kelly, chair of the CBC health branch, told Axios. "Companies purposely marketed to African Americans and a high rate of African Americans smoke menthol cigarettes, and we know that cigarettes kill."
  • Thirty two members of the CBC urged the FDA last summer to implement the menthol ban. But the agency missed a self-imposed August deadline to finalize a rule.

Yes, but: Not all CBC members feel the ban should be fast-tracked.

  • Asked about the ban, CBC Chair Steven Horsford said he'd send a formal statement, because "we have enough issues around here without creating another one."
  • "I've kind of taken the position it's an adult decision," Rep. Bennie Thompson told Axios. "But I don't see it as being 'Well, if you're for the ban, I'm gonna vote against you.'"
  • Neither Horsford nor Thompson signed the CBC's letter.

The intrigue: The split is also evident among some civil rights groups.

  • The ACLU is against the ban, while the NAACP is for it. The Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network has also spoken out against it.
  • The ACLU has concerns with a ban for the way it could "create a circumstance where police officers have yet another point of contact with black and brown people," said Cynthia W. Roseberry, director of the group's justice division.
  • "We call on the White House to ban menthol flavored cigarettes, the same way other flavors were banned," said NAACP's Derrick Johnson in a recent ad paid for by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "It is a red herring argument at this ninth hour to say it will create political risk."
  • The White House declined to comment, citing the ongoing rulemaking process.

Zoom in: Civil rights groups in opposition along with tobacco industry groups reportedly met with the White House in November. The final rule was expected to drop in December but still hasn't materialized. The OMB now says final action will come in March.

  • R.J. Reynolds, maker of the No. 1-selling menthol brand, Newport, said in a statement that there are more effective ways to deliver tobacco harm reduction than banning products. "The published science shows that menthol cigarettes do not present any greater risk of smoking-related disease compared to non-menthol cigarettes."

By the numbers: Menthol products constitute over a third of tobacco sales in the U.S.

  • Over 80% of Black adults who smoke use menthol products, according to the CDC, compared with 34% of white adults.
  • The CDC estimates that 157,000 Black Americans died prematurely from smoking menthol cigarettes from 1980 to 2018.

Of note: The House's Agriculture-FDA appropriations bill includes a policy rider that would prevent the FDA from banning menthol.

Flashback: The FDA first announced it would move forward with a menthol ban in spring 2021, saying it would significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers and address health disparities.

What we're watching: The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the Biden administration has set an internal deadline of Jan. 20 to ensure that the ban is locked in and couldn't be overturned via the Congressional Review Act, which takes aim at "midnight rulemaking" late in an administration.

  • On Jan. 18, a group of Black community leaders and public health advocates will hold a "menthol funeral" in front of the White House to draw attention to how many Black people have died from tobacco-related illnesses.
Go deeper