Biden’s Delay Sparks Outrage: Menthol Ban Lawsuit Looms

Written by Elizabeth Thompson.

In a glaring oversight that speaks volumes about the current administration’s priorities, the White House has stumbled, missing a critical deadline to finalize a rule aimed at banning menthol cigarettes. This move—or lack thereof—has ignited a firestorm among public health advocates, who see it as a potential setback in the fight against tobacco-induced harm, particularly in vulnerable communities. This blunder has now led to legal action, with three leading anti-tobacco public health organizations taking a stand by suing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its overseeing body, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The Fight for Public Health Intensifies

At the heart of this controversy is the Biden administration’s apparent reluctance to push forward a ban on menthol cigarettes, a decision that has now attracted legal scrutiny. The delay has left many to speculate that election year politics are influencing policy decisions at the expense of public health. The lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California, paints a grim picture of the consequences of inaction, accusing the administration of allowing tobacco companies free rein to target youth, women, and predominantly the Black community with menthol cigarettes.

Biden’s Broken Promises

Originally slated for publication last August, the rule to ban menthol has been pushed back multiple times, most recently to March, amid intense lobbying from various quarters, including the tobacco industry itself. Critics argue that the administration’s hesitation could be a political maneuver, aimed at not alienating Black smokers—a key demographic—thereby jeopardizing President Biden’s chances for reelection. The delay has drawn sharp criticism from prominent figures in the public health sphere, including Yolonda Richardson and Derrick Johnson, who have condemned the administration for prioritizing political expediency over lives, particularly Black lives.

A Regulatory Limbo

The March deadline was regulatory, not legislative, indicating a lack of immediate pressure on the Biden administration to act. However, this bureaucratic inertia has not gone unchallenged. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has been engaged in discussions with stakeholders for months, yet there remains only one more scheduled meeting on the public calendar. This has raised concerns about the influence of tobacco industry lobbyists, specifically Altria, represented by Forbes Tate Partners, on the regulatory process.

Voices from the Community

Carol McGruder, representing the African American Tobacco Control Leadership, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, has expressed a resolute determination to advance the cause, despite the administration’s hesitance. The message is clear: the voices of the community and public health advocates will not be drowned out by the tobacco industry or stalled by bureaucratic delays. The lawsuit serves as a rallying cry for action, emphasizing the urgent need for a rule to pass.

A Decade of Inaction

The debate over a menthol ban is not new, stretching back over more than a decade across multiple administrations. Despite Congress banning flavored cigarettes in 2009, menthol was conspicuously exempted, a loophole that has since been exploited. The FDA has been criticized for its prolonged inaction, a stance challenged by the same three groups in 2020. The dismissal of their initial lawsuit came with the FDA’s proposal of a rule in 2022, which promised to save lives but has yet to come to fruition.

Our Take: A Call for Immediate Action

The failure of the Biden administration to promptly address the menthol cigarette ban is more than a mere oversight; it is a reflection of a broader issue of governance where political calculations override public health imperatives. At a time when the administration could make a significant impact on public health and honor its commitments to health equity and the fight against cancer, it chooses instead to delay and deflect. This lawsuit underscores a critical moment for public health advocacy, highlighting the necessity for immediate action over political hesitation. It’s time for the White House to prioritize the health and well-being of all Americans over electoral politics. Lives depend on it.

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