Joe Biden’s ban on menthol cigarettes tempts backlash from voting blocs Democrats need in November

The Biden administration’s new ban on menthol cigarettes threatens to alienate some of the Democratic Party’s key constituencies including Blacks, Hispanics, women and young voters ahead of the November elections.

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday issued a proposal prohibiting the sale of menthol cigarettes, calling the rule “an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.” The agency said a menthol ban would prevent up to 654,000 cigarette-related deaths over the next four decades. 

But the move is unpopular with voters in key swing states, according to a recent poll, and could be particularly damaging for Democrats among Black voters, who have the highest percentage of menthol cigarette use among all racial and ethnic groups.

A poll conducted earlier this month in Georgia, North Carolina and Nevada found the proposed menthol cigarette ban “is broadly unpopular in these states.”

The poll, conducted by Echelon Insights and provided to The Washington Times, found more than half of voters surveyed in all three states opposed a ban on menthol cigarettes. More than 60% of voters in the three states said it would result in an illegal market.

In Nevada, where Democrats have increasingly relied on the Hispanic vote, 72% of Hispanics said the Biden administration “should fully explore” how banning menthol cigarettes would impact crime and jobs before carrying out the proposed rule. 

SEE ALSO: FDA writes rules to prohibit menthol cigs

Among Nevada Democrats overall, 71% said the Biden administration should hold off on a ban. 

In Georgia, where a third of the respondents to the poll were Black voters, the poll found 44% of respondents were less likely to vote for a candidate “who vocally supported this proposed ban.”

Black voters in Georgia have become critical for Democrats. Heavy turnout from Black voters helped President Biden narrowly win the state in the 2020 election. Black voter turnout also played a critical role in helping Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock win Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats in a runoff contest in January 2021, a pair of victories that gave their party control of the upper chamber.

Black voters make up 30% of Georgia’s registered voters and more than 70% of them are Democrats, according to Pew Research. 

In Nevada, 60% of Hispanic voters, who helped push Mr. Biden to victory in the state in 2020, said they would be less likely to choose a candidate who backed a menthol ban.

In North Carolina, 52% of the critical independent voting bloc said they would too be less likely to vote for a candidate who supported the ban. Overall, 94% of voters polled said banning menthol cigarettes shouldn’t be a top priority for the Biden administration. 

SEE ALSO: Shrinking economy poses another major headache for Democrats ahead of midterms

The poll surveyed approximately 600 people in each of the three states and a majority of respondents were female. Women are more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes than men, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“Opposition to this ban centers around the fact that voters do not believe a ban would be effective, it would spawn an illicit market and should not be a major priority given all the other crises going on,” Echelon pollsters said. “With the price of gas and groceries going up by the day, voters could punish Democrats if they take their eye off the ball and don’t address the cost of living and other more pressing crises first.”

Officials at the FDA and other proponents of the ban, including the NAACP, say Black people and other minorities have been targeted by tobacco companies pushing menthol cigarette use for many decades.

According to the FDA, 85% of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes. 

In a statement Thursday, the agency said up to 238,000 deaths among Black people could be prevented by eliminating menthol cigarettes from the market.

According to agency statistics, in 2019 there were 18.5 million menthol cigarette smokers ages 12 and older in the United States “with particularly high rates of use by youth, young adults, and African American and other racial and ethnic groups.”

The NAACP praised the ban and said it has been lobbying the FDA for years to take them off the market.

“For decades, the tobacco industry has been targeting African Americans and have contributed to the skyrocketing rates of heart disease, stroke and cancer across our community,” the NAACP said in a statement. “The tobacco industry is on a narrow quest for profit, and they have been killing us along the way.”

Two prominent Black activists, lawyer Benjamin Crump and the Rev. Al Sharpton, raised concerns about the ban. Mr. Crump argued it would racially discriminate by criminalizing a practice favored by Black smokers and could result in deadly confrontations with police. 

Mr. Sharpton helped defeat a menthol ban in New York City in 2019 over concerns it would create an illicit market for the cigarettes that could result, he said, in Black people getting hurt or injured by police. 

In 2014, Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes illegally on New York City streets when he was killed by a police officer who put him in a chokehold.

The proposed ban includes flavored cigars, which FDA officials said are used increasingly to lure youth into the smoking habit, along with menthol cigarettes, which are also popular among young people.

FDA officials said that the minty taste of menthol  “increases appeal and makes menthol cigarettes easier to use, particularly for youth and young adults.”

The agency claims menthol increases the addictiveness of cigarettes and makes it more difficult to quit, which tobacco companies dispute.

A spokeswoman for Reynolds, the tobacco company that produces Newport menthol cigarettes, did not respond to a request for comment.

The company lobbied the White House in March to delay the proposed rule prohibiting menthol cigarettes, arguing there were many questions about how it would be implemented and whether it would cause “disparate impacts on communities of color,” and other groups, according to a letter obtained by The New York Times.

The menthol ban won’t be immediate. The FDA will accept comments on the proposal until July 5 and will hold two public listening sessions in June. The ban will take effect one year after the rule is finalized.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the menthol ban, telling reporters it will end the targeting of communities of color with a harmful product.

“The objective of it was not to address politics or handle politics in one way or another, but to save lives,” Ms. Psaki said at the daily White House press briefing. “This is not targeting individuals, this is not to give anybody license to arrest somebody who is smoking a cigarette, a menthol cigarette. This is going after the manufacturers of this.”

• Thomas Howell contributed to this report.

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