Feds plan to ban menthol cigarettes prompts belated lobbying campaign

WASHINGTON (AP) — As federal authorities finalize a long-awaited plan to ban menthol cigarettes, dozens of interest groups have met with White House staffers to try to influence the process, which has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives while wiping out billions in tobacco sales.

Biden administration officials heard from tobacco lobbyists, tobacco control advocates, civil rights groups, small business owners and conservative think tanks. Lobbying pressure underscores the far-reaching impacts of banning menthol, which accounts for more than a third of the US cigarette market.

The White House concluded its review of the Food and Drug Administration proposal on Thursday after nearly 40 virtual meetings with outside groups, according to a government website. The FDA has pledged to present a detailed proposal to phase out the flavor by the end of the month, which means a formal announcement could come next week.

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Meeting documents posted online show that nearly all groups opposed to the ban have financial ties to tobacco companies, including companies that sell cigarettes and nonprofit groups that receive charitable contributions.

Menthol is the only cigarette flavor that was not banned under the 2009 law that gave the FDA authority over tobacco products. Several efforts to phase out menthol since then have been derailed by industry pushback or competing political priorities.

Menthol’s persistence infuriates health advocates, as the ingredient’s cooling effect has been shown to make it easier to start smoking and harder to quit. The health consequences fell disproportionately on black smokers, 85% of whom use menthols.

FDA officials estimate a ban could prevent 630,000 smoking-related deaths over 40 years, more than a third of them among black people.

Anti-tobacco groups are closely watching scrutiny by the White House’s budget arm, having seen past FDA tobacco proposals shelved or watered down under previous administrations.

“The problem with this process is that, in the past, political considerations have trumped FDA scientific analysis,” said Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “But I’m optimistic the rule will come out in much the same form the agency proposed.”

The White House Office of Management and Budget reviews all major federal regulations before they are released, especially those that could impact the economy. Outside groups and individuals can request a meeting, providing one last chance to try to shape the final product.

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

More than half of budget office meetings on the menthol issue have been requested by groups that traditionally oppose tobacco restrictions. Memos and follow-up correspondence reveal familiar arguments about the unintended consequences of a ban, including that it would subject black communities to additional policing due to cigarette smuggling.

Reverend Al Sharpton warned officials that the FDA plan would “exacerbate existing and latent issues regarding racial profiling, discrimination, and policing,” according to a letter sent following his April 13 meeting, which included Susan Rice, President Joe Biden’s top national adviser. on racial inequality.

Sharpton’s group, the National Action Network, has long received money from Reynolds American, maker of the top-selling menthol brand, Newport. Online recordings of the group’s OMB meeting show it was scheduled by the same law firm that arranged Reynolds’ meeting with White House staff.

The National Action Network did not respond to requests for comment.

Health advocates dismiss concerns of over-surveillance because the FDA’s proposal would apply to companies that make or sell menthol cigarettes, not individual smokers.

“It’s about stopping the production, distribution and sale of these things,” said Dr Phillip Gardiner of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. “It has nothing to do with possession.”

On Wednesday, the NAACP urged the Biden administration to move forward with the menthol ban, saying failure to do so “would be discriminatory and defeat the purpose and function of the FDA.” .

More than a quarter of meetings were requested by gas stations, convenience stores and distributors. Members of the Southern Association of Wholesale Distributors said some convenience stores could lose 30% of their cigarette revenue, forcing them to close and “create food deserts”.

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

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

But Gardiner and other advocates point out that most cigarette smuggling in the United States today is done across state lines to take advantage of differences in tax rates. If menthol production stops altogether, there will be few supplies to smuggle: Canada, for its part, banned menthol in 2018.

More than 100 US cities and counties have already restricted menthol products, with little indication of a growing illicit market.

“The idea that there are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of menthol cigarettes that can be shipped around the world and across our borders has not materialized,” he said.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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