Menthol Cigarettes
Biden administration officials are targeting March to implement the rule banning menthol cigarettes. Jeff Chiu/AP

Black Public Health Advocates Fear Biden Is Playing Politics With Menthols

“Black lives are at stake,” one health official says of Biden’s inaction around the flavored cigarettes.

Black public health officials and lawmakers are losing confidence that President Joe Biden will ban menthol cigarettes, a major killer in Black communities.

The Biden administration has already pushed back several self-imposed deadlines to enact a ban on menthol products, like Newport and Kool cigarettes, which was formally proposed by the Food and Drug Administration in 2022.

“They said August 2023, then the end of 2023, and now we’re being told March of 2024,” Phillip Gardiner, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC), said. “I hold no hopes out for that at all.”

The ban has been the center of intense lobbying disputes for over 20 years, and has divided the Congressional Black Caucus — a political mess the Biden administration is reportedly weary of wading into, especially in an election year.

Groups in support of the ban blame the White House’s delays on well-funded lobbyists and public figures, backed by tobacco companies. Some point specifically to a poll funded by tobacco giant Altria Group, and conducted by Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher. It found that a majority of “core” Biden voters oppose the administration’s proposed ban.

“We don’t know for sure, but that particular poll, with cherry-picked data, is probably what pushed some of the cold feet from the White House,” one proponent of the menthol ban, who has been involved in meetings with the administration, told NOTUS. “Our understanding was there was strong support within the administration and now it appears that it’s gotten into the political realm.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

This rule comes just as Biden’s reelection campaign contends with a decrease of support among Black voters. The issue is already being used as a political cudgel: An anonymously funded conservative group sent mailers to about 75,000 Democratic primary voters in South Carolina targeting Biden over the proposed menthol ban, NBC reported.

Per Politico, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf has privately urged allies and public health experts to ramp up lobbying at the White House in favor of a ban, and raised concerns that the White House is delaying a ban for political reasons.

The White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs held a meeting with several tobacco industry representatives and allies in November, according to a source familiar with the meeting. The meeting featured several prominent Black leaders and lobbyists including civil rights attorney Ben Crump and former North Carolina Congressman G. K. Butterfield, who have both accepted money from tobacco companies R.J. Reynolds and Altria, respectively.

Butterfield has been vocal about his disagreement with the proposal since its introduction.

“A ban on menthol cigarettes could lead to increased negative interactions between law enforcement and these communities,” Butterfield argued in a joint memo to the White House when the rule was officially proposed in April 2022.

Some advocacy groups like the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement and Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, have also voiced their opposition, as have several Black lawmakers, muddling up the position of an often unified Congressional Black Caucus.

“At this point everyone has to search their own conscience about this,” New York Democratic Rep. Yvette Clarke, who opposes the ban, told NOTUS. “I’m really, really concerned about police abuse. I know that without there being commensurate public education and programs to help, it’s going to cause a big issue for many people who are addicted to nicotine.”

North Carolina Democratic Rep. Don Davis, who took Butterfield’s seat after his retirement, also opposes the ban, citing Black tobacco farmers. “Economic wellness should be a part of this equation as well,” he said.

Still, a majority of lawmakers in the CBC, 32, led by the caucus’ Health Braintrust chair, Rep. Robin Kelly, called the rule “long-overdue” in a letter to the FDA to move swiftly in implementing it once they neared the August deadline.

“There are a lot of CBC members that have signed on, but there are still some that don’t want us to do it,” Kelly said. “The administration is going to think about all of that, which I respect.”

Many Black health leaders do not have the same patience. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids was one of several groups including the AATCLC, NAACP, National Medical Association and more that put together its own meeting with administration officials to urge the ban. Their main argument: Today over 85% of African American adults who smoke cigarettes use menthol products.

“That’s no accident,” Gardiner said. “That’s what we essentially call predatory marketing on the part of the tobacco industry.”

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These groups have also taken the fight to the streets. Last month, the AATCLC organized a “menthol funeral” in which proponents of the ban marched down Black Lives Matter Plaza for a jazz funeral procession featuring a fake casket designed to look like a box of menthol cigarettes. Organizers say they wanted to draw attention to the fact that menthol was getting a short shrift from the administration.

“This has been going on for over 20 years. It is a special carve out and buy out,” Gardiner said. “It needs to come to an end. Black lives are at stake.”

Calen Razor is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.