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Biden Admin Pursuing Menthol Cigarette Ban, Despite Concerns of 'Serious Racial Implications'

© Flickr / Malaya K PradhanCigarette butts
Cigarette butts - Sputnik International, 1920, 29.04.2021
Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a memo to US President Joe Biden's administration, warning that a ban on menthol cigarettes alone would "trigger criminal penalties, which will disproportionately impact people of color, as well as prioritize criminalization over public health and harm reduction."

The Biden administration is preparing this week to announce a proposal to ban menthol cigarettes, several outlets - including the Washington Post and CBS News - reported on Wednesday.

Citing sources familiar with the tentative legislative proposal, the reports claim the US president will set forth a plan on Thursday, when the US Food and Drug Administration is required to submit a decision on the continued sale of menthol-flavored cigarettes. 

The April 29, 2021, deadline was set as a result of a 2013 citizen petition filed by the Public Health Law Center.  

It's worth noting the ban does not require congressional approval, but the matter will require public comment before it can pass. 

Prior to the reports, Sen. Dick Durbin and Reps. Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, sent a letter to the FDA on April 21, calling for the federal agency to prohibit the sale of menthol-flavored cigarettes. 

Citing the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Democratic lawmakers asserted that menthol cigarettes are both believed to be a "popular on-ramp into smoking for children" and an easier way to absorb harmful chemicals - "likely because menthol makes it easier to inhale cigarette smoke." 

The FDA - which has previously banned cigarette flavors such as cherry and chocolate - notes on its website that nearly 20 million Americans smoke menthol cigarettes, according to a 2016 study by the US Department of Health and Human Services. 

The study also detailed 85.8% of Black, or African American, smokers smoke menthol cigarettes. In comparison, "46 percent of Hispanic smokers, 39 percent of Asian smokers, and 28.7 percent of White smokers smoke menthol cigarettes." 

On Monday, the ACLU - on behalf of two dozen related organizations - issued a letter of concern to DHHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, claiming the reported proposal, although "well-intentioned," could result in "unconstitutional policing and other negative interactions with local law enforcement."  

The memo detailed that the ACLU and other organizations do indeed agree with the need to address the public health issues surrounding cigarettes. However, they recommend the FDA and policy architects continue advancements with "harm reduction policies emphasizing education for adults and minors, cessation, well-funded health care for communities of color, and other members that push tobacco use down without putting criminal justice at risk."

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