FDA plan to ban menthol cigarettes faces pushback

Rush Hour

(NewsNation) — The U.S. government’s plan to ban menthol cigarettes and cigars is facing pushback. The proposal has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives, but it could also wipe out billions in tobacco sales.

Dozens of interest groups have met with White House staffers in an attempt to influence the process.

Biden administration officials have heard from tobacco lobbyists as well as anti-smoking advocates.

The pushback underscores the far-reaching impacts of banning menthol, which accounts for more than one-third of the U.S. cigarette market.

According to a government website, nearly all the groups opposing the ban have financial ties to tobacco companies, including businesses that sell cigarettes and nonprofit groups that receive charitable contributions.

The U.S. government released its long-awaited plan to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars last week, citing the toll on Black smokers and young people.

However. the Rev. Al Sharpton warned officials that the Food and Drug Administration’s plan would “exacerbate existing, simmering issues around racial profiling, discrimination and policing.” 

Sharpton’s group, the National Action Network, has long received money from Reynolds American, maker of the best-selling menthol brand, Newport. 

The FDA said eliminating menthol cigarettes could prevent 300,000 to 650,000 smoking deaths over 40 years.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement that a ban would be an “important step to advance health equity” by reducing disparities in tobacco-related diseases.

“The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit,” he said.

Members of the Southern Association of Wholesale Distributors said some convenience stores could lose 30% of their cigarette revenue, forcing them to close and “creating food deserts.”

Other groups, including Americans for Tax Reform, warned of lost government revenue, citing one estimate that federal and state budgets would lose $6.6 billion in cigarette sales taxes. That group, led by conservative activist Grover Norquist, has received funding from Altria, the nation’s largest cigarette maker.

Another argument from tobacco-aligned groups is that outlawing menthol would create an illicit market and increase criminal activities.

But Gardiner and other advocates point out that most cigarette smuggling in the U.S. today is across state lines to take advantage of differences in tax rates. If menthol production stops altogether, there will be little supply to smuggle. Canada banned menthol in 2018.

More than 100 U.S. cities and counties have already restricted menthol products, with few indications of a burgeoning illicit market.

“The idea that somehow there’s hundreds of millions of dollars of menthol cigarettes that can be shipped around the world and across our border has not happened,” he said.

The FDA proposals are only initial drafts and are unlikely to be finalized before next year.

Companies would then have one additional year to phase out their products. Tobacco industry lawsuits could delay the prohibition for several more years, according to experts.

For now, FDA leaders said they will take comments for two months and then proceed “as expeditiously as possible.”

The Associated Press contributued to this repot.

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