Decades after earliest government warnings against smoking, officials torn on menthol ban

White House aides are worried about voter backlash, particularly among Blacks.

January 10, 2024, 11:42 AM

Aides to President Joe Biden remain divided on a plan to ban menthol cigarette sales, according to several people familiar with the matter who say concerns of voter backlash in the election and pressure from civil rights groups are stalling the measure.

The fate of the proposal has been the subject of internal discussions in recent days among White House aides and top officials from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The internal debate, described by officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly, comes on the 60th anniversary of the landmark warning by the surgeon general urging Americans not to smoke.

If Biden wants to guarantee the rule is enacted under his watch, he would have to finalize the regulation by next week.

"This moment goes beyond public health -- it is about who we are as a nation and whose lives we value. We strongly urge the administration to make the right choice, and to make it now," said Dr. Avenel Joseph, vice president of policy at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Behind the lobbying effort to keep menthols on the market are some civil rights groups, including Al Sharpton's National Action Network and lawyer Ben Crump.

The National Action Network has declined to comment on reports that major tobacco companies have sponsored some of the organization's activities, but says it's concerned about criminal prosecution of Black smokers.

"National Action Network has taken the position that, unless there are real safeguards against criminal prosecution of Black and Brown communities, the proposed menthol ban will have unintended consequences," the organization told ABC News.

The rule would prevent the marketing and distribution of menthols. It would not make possession of a menthol tobacco product illegal.

Crump did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Menthol is a flavor additive with a minty taste and aroma that health experts say masks the harsh effects of smoking. Menthol also makes smoking harder to quit, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which initiated the proposed ban.

That's why health experts say it's particularly troubling that menthol cigarettes have been aggressively marketed to Black communities. Nearly 85% of all non-Hispanic Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, compared to 30% of non-Hispanic white smokers, per the FDA.

An estimated 45,000 Black people die from smoking each year, according to the American Lung Association.

"By quickly finalizing and implementing rules to remove menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars from the market, the administration would be taking historic action to reduce disparities, advance health equity and prevent death and disease from tobacco use," said Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association.

With groups like the American Heart Association and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids pushing the administration to move ahead with the plan, the proposal was nearing its final regulatory hurdle this month with a review by the White House budget office. But sources say internal debate on whether to finalize the plan -- or to wait until the election is over -- stalled those efforts.

ABC News' Sabina Ghebremedhin contributed to this report.