WASHINGTON (News21USA) — White House officials will take more time to review a sweeping plan by U.S. health regulators to ban menthol cigarettes, an unexpected delay that anti-smoking groups fear could derail the long-awaited rule.
Administration officials indicated Wednesday that the process will continue into next year, with the goal of implementing the rule in March, according to an updated regulatory agenda posted online. The standard was previously expected to be published in late 2023 or early January.
The Food and Drug Administration has spent years developing the plan to phase out menthol, estimating it could prevent between 300,000 and 650,000 smoking deaths over several decades. Most of those preventable deaths would occur among black Americans, who disproportionately smoke menthols.
The FDA’s previous efforts on menthol have been derailed by pushback from the tobacco industry or by competing policy priorities among various administrations. The latest delay comes amid lingering concerns from some Democrats about President Joe Biden’s prospects in a rematch against Donald Trump.
Anti-smoking groups have been supporting this effort for years. And some warned Wednesday that the proposal, which would give tobacco companies a year to phase out the flavor, could be delayed indefinitely.
“Any delay in finalizing the FDA’s menthol rule would be a gift to the tobacco industry at the expense of Black lives,” said Yolanda Richardson, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “We urge the administration to make good on its promise and issue a final rule by the end of this year.”
Menthol is the only cigarette flavor that was not banned under the 2009 law that gave the FDA authority over tobacco products. The cooling effect of the flavor makes it easier to start smoking and harder to quit, driving the popularity of menthol. It is estimated that 85% of black smokers buy menthols.
FDA officials sent their final version of the regulation to the White House Office of Management and Budget in October, typically the last step before a rule is published.
But the White House agreed to hold dozens of meetings with groups opposed to the rule, including civil rights advocates, business owners and law enforcement officials. In almost all cases, groups opposing the ban have received donations from tobacco companies.
More than 60 meetings about the rule have been scheduled with budget office staff, and discussions will extend into January, according to a government website. So far, only three of the meetings have been with health groups, records show.
The meetings underscore the attention the issue is attracting from prominent African American leaders and senior members of the Biden administration.
A Nov. 20 meeting included civil rights attorney Ben Crump and Kendrick Meek, a former congressman who is now a lobbyist for a law firm whose clients include the tobacco company Reynolds American. More than two dozen government officials also attended the virtual meeting, including Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
The meeting was requested by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which has received funding from cigarette makers including Reynolds. The group has been running ads in local Washington media warning that a menthol ban would damage relations between police and the communities they serve.
The FDA and health advocates have long rejected such concerns, noting that FDA enforcement of the rule would only apply to companies that make or sell cigarettes, not individual smokers.
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