FDA plan to ban menthol cigarettes pushed back

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(NewsNation) – The US government’s plan to ban menthol cigarettes and cigars is facing a setback. 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 met with White House staffers to try to influence the process.

Biden administration officials heard from tobacco lobbyists as well as tobacco control advocates.

The setback underscores the far-reaching effects of the ban on menthol, which accounts for more than a third of the US cigarette market.

According to a government website, nearly all groups opposed to the ban have financial ties to tobacco companies, including companies that sell cigarettes and non-profit groups that receive charitable contributions.

The US government released its long-awaited plan to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars last week, citing the toll of smokers and young black people.

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

Sharpton’s group, the National Action Network, has long received money from Reynolds American, maker of the top-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 in advancing health equity” by reducing disparities in tobacco-related disease.

“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 “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.

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

Companies would then have an additional year to phase out their products. Legal action by the tobacco industry could delay the ban for years, experts say.

For now, FDA officials said they would take comments for two months and then proceed “as quickly as possible.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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