Biden administration delays plan to ban menthol cigarettes

FILE PHOTO: Newport and Camel cigarettes are stacked on a shelf inside a tobacco store in New York

By Jarrett Renshaw

(Reuters) -The Biden administration on Friday delayed its plan to ban menthol cigarettes, a move that reflected the potential for a political backlash from Black voters in an election year.

For decades, menthol cigarettes have been in the crosshairs of anti-smoking groups who argue that they contribute to disproportionate health burdens on Black communities and play a role in luring young people into smoking.

About 81% of Black adults who smoked cigarettes used menthol varieties, compared with 34% of white adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

U.S. health secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement that the proposed ban had brought immense feedback including from parts of the civil rights and criminal justice movement.

"It's clear that there are still more conversations to have, and that will take significantly more time," he said in a statement that appeared to suggest it would not be sorted before the presidential election in November.

Shares of tobacco companies were muted following the news. Altria Group and British American Tobacco closed down marginally, while Imperial Brands' shares ended nearly 1% lower.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson said his organization was outraged and disgusted by the political move.

"In an election year, politicians should be prioritizing people, not profiteers. Today's news from the Biden Administration is a blow to the Black community, who continue to be unfairly targeted and unjustly killed by Big Tobacco," he said.

Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, also expressed dismay over the delay. "Two full years after releasing proposed rules backed by extensive scientific evidence – and more than a decade since the FDA began examining menthol cigarettes – the administration has failed to take decisive action to remove these deadly, addictive products from the market."

"We strongly believe there are more effective ways to transition adult smokers away from cigarettes permanently," said a spokesperson for Reynolds American, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco.

The spokesperson said that providing access to nicotine alternatives such as vaping products, "are critical in supporting adult smokers to migrate from combustible cigarettes."

Menthol cigarettes account for a third of the industry's overall market share in the United States.

The highly addictive products have been cited for their appeal to young smokers, as well as significant health impacts for Black communities.

Civil rights groups have contended for years that menthol cigarettes pose a disproportionately higher risk in Black communities, where they are heavily marketed.

Yolonda Richardson, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said last month that research showed eliminating menthol cigarettes would cut the number of young people who start smoking, increase the number of smokers who quit, and save up to 654,000 lives within 40 years, including 255,000 Black lives.

(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw in Washington and Granth Vanaik in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Juveria Tabassum in Bengaluru, Emma Rumney in London and Ahmed Aboulenein in Washington; Editing by Shilpi Majumdar, Sriraj Kalluvila and Bill Berkrot)