The White House has delayed its decision about whether to ban menthol cigarettes in the wake of fierce opposition from tobacco companies, retailers and other groups, reports The New York Times. The administration had originally planned to have the rule finalized by August 2023 and, later, signaled that the rule would come before the end of 2023. The government’s most recent Unified Agenda—a regulatory “to-do” list—suggests the final menthol rule is now expected in March 2024.
The Food and Drug Administration officially announced its plan to ban menthol cigarettes in April 2022, citing public health concerns. Researchers say the cooling sensation of the menthol flavor makes it easier to start smoking and harder to quit. The FDA estimates that the menthol ban could reduce smoking by 15 percent in 40 years. Studies project that as many as 650,000 smoking-related deaths could be avoided.
In recent months, dozens of groups have met with administration officials to discuss the proposal. Among other concerns, opponents of the measure cite job losses and aggressive police targeting of Black smokers, who tend to favor menthol cigarettes in the United States. An estimated 85 percent of U.S. Black smokers prefer menthol brands, according to market data.
Critics, however, contend that tobacco companies are financing and fueling those fears. “They’re peddling stories—Big Tobacco is—that we’re going to go out and arrest African Americans if they use menthol cigarettes. But that’s not the case at all,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin. The FDA has said that the ban will be enforced at the manufacturers’ level, and not against individuals.
Menthols account for about one-third of the U.S. cigarette market, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Reynolds American Inc. (RAI), which makes the market-leading Newport brand, earns about $7 billion from menthol cigarette sales a year, research by Goldman Sachs shows. RAI has vowed to fight the ban all the way to the Supreme Court, a battle that could postpone implementation of the final prohibition rule for years.
Convenience store, gas station and wholesaler groups predict a loss of $34 billion in sales from menthol cigarettes and snacks and drinks purchased by customers. Some House Republicans have sent letters to the administration warning that the ban could have a disastrous effect on small businesses and that it could encourage cigarette smuggling that would benefit terrorist groups.
Altria spokesman David Sutton said the company was also concerned about illicit sales as well as lost tax revenue and jobs.
“We believe equitable harm reduction, not prohibition, is the better path forward and that the FDA should authorize smoke-free products and encourage adult smokers to transition to a smoke-free future,” Sutton said in an email to The New York Times.
Public health groups were dismayed by the delay of the menthol ban. “This delay not only puts the rules at risk of never being finalized but also represents a significant victory for Big Tobacco’s well-documented exploitative practices, all at the expense of our nation’s public health,” said Kathy Crosby, CEO and president of Truth Initiative, in a statement.
Public opinion polls have shown that about 60 percent of Americans favor banning menthol cigarettes.