The plan to ban menthol cigarettes gives rise to late lobbying

WASHINGTON (AP) – As federal officials complete 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.

Officials in the Biden administration have heard from tobacco lobbyists, anti-smoking advocates, civil rights groups, small business owners and conservative think tanks. The lobbying effort underscores the far-reaching consequences of banning menthol, which accounts for over a third of the U.S. cigarette market.

The White House completed its review of the Food and Drug Administration’s proposal Thursday after nearly 40 virtual meetings with external groups, according to a government website. The FDA has promised to present a detailed proposal to phase out the flavor by the end of the month, which means an official announcement may come next week.

Meeting material posted online shows that almost all groups that oppose the ban have financial links 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. More efforts to remove menthol since then has been derailed by industry pushbacks or competing political priorities.

Menthol’s persistence makes health advocates furious because the ingredient’s cooling effect has been shown to make it easier to start smoking and harder to quit. The health consequences have been disproportionately reduced for black smokers, of whom 85% use menthol.

FDA officials estimate that a ban could prevent 630,000 smoking deaths over the age of 40, more than a third among blacks.

Anti-tobacco groups closely follow the review from the White House budget arm after seeing previous FDA tobacco proposals be shelved or diluted under previous administrations.

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

The White House Office of Management and Budget reviews all major federal regulations before publication, especially those that could affect the economy. External groups and individuals can request a meeting, giving 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 the budget office’s meetings on the menthol issue were requested by groups traditionally opposed to tobacco restrictions. Memos and follow-up correspondence reveal well-known arguments about unintended consequences of a ban, including that it would expose black communities to further police work due to smuggling cigarettes.

Rev. Al Sharpton warned officials that the FDA’s plan would “exacerbate existing, simmering problems around racial profiling, discrimination and policing,” according to a letter sent after his April 13 meeting that included Susan Rice, President Joe Biden’s top domestic adviser. on racial inequality.

Sharpton’s group, the National Action Network, has long received money from Reynolds American, producer of the best-selling menthol brand, Newport. Online records of the group’s OMB meeting show that it was planned 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 the concerns of over-policing because the FDA’s proposal would apply to companies that manufacture or sell menthol cigarettes, not individual smokers.

“This is 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 called on the Biden administration to go ahead with the menthol ban, saying that failure to do so “would be discriminatory and thwart the FDA’s goals and function.”

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

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

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

But Gardiner and other proponents point out that most cigarette smuggling in the United States today takes place across state borders to take advantage of differences in tax rates. If menthol production stops completely, there will be little supply to smuggle: Canada first banned menthol in 2018.

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

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

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Follow Matthew Perrone on Twitter: @AP_FDAwriter

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institutes Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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