The Biden administration abruptly announced Friday that it will delay regulations banning menthol cigarettes amid widespread opposition to the proposal.

In a statement, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra said his agency would not move to finalize the regulations and pointed to opposition from civil rights activists. Since they were first proposed by the HHS’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the regulations have sparked a contentious debate between health advocates and civil liberties and business groups.

‘This rule has garnered historic attention and the public comment period has yielded an immense amount of feedback, including from various elements of the civil rights and criminal justice movement,’ Becerra said in a statement. ‘It’s clear that there are still more conversations to have, and that will take significantly more time.’

Initiated 2 years ago

The announcement comes exactly two years after FDA initially proposed the regulations, paving the way for an historic ban on menthol cigarettes that the administration said would be a ‘critical’ piece of President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative. FDA also argued at the time that the ban would broadly ‘reduce the appeal of cigarettes’ and have substantial health impacts.

FDA ultimately handed the regulations off to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for final approval months ago after a lengthy public comment period. However, officials dragged their feet in moving forward with the regulations and missed multiple self-imposed deadlines to finalize them, igniting concerns among health advocates that the administration may change course.

‘Unfortunately, the possibility of this administration making these rules a reality is shrinking with the passage of time, and ACS CAN is calling on the administration to not miss the opportunity to make a historic gain in the fight against cancer,’ American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network CEO Karen Knudsen said in a statement on Friday ahead of Becerra’s announcement.

‘Top priority’

OMB declined to comment and referred Fox News Digital back to Becerra’s statement. 

And an FDA spokesperson said the agency remains committed to issuing tobacco product standards for menthol in cigarettes and characterizing flavors in cigars.

‘As we’ve made clear, these product standards remain at the top of our priorities,’ the spokesperson said.

During the public comment period, associations representing convenience stores, police, consumers and minority groups warned the administration that a ban on menthol cigarettes could foster an illicit market for the product, while punishing small business owners and minorities who are the largest consumers of the product.

Groups representing minorities, like the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement and the nonprofit National Action Network — the latter of which was founded by civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton — argued that banning menthol cigarettes while not restricting non-menthol cigarettes ‘puts a microscope on minority communities.’ 

White House meetings

The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement, National Action Network, National Newspaper Publishers Association and civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump met with Becerra, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf and White House domestic policy adviser Neera Tanden to discuss the proposal in November, according to White House records.

The White House also convened meetings with other stakeholders, including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Lung Association, and the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS). 

‘The USHBC applauds President Biden for his leadership in delaying the menthol ban, recognizing the unintended consequences it would have had on convenience store sales nationwide and the livelihoods of over 600,000 workers,’ Javier Palomarez, the president and CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Business Council, told Fox News Digital in a statement.

‘Implementing a ban would have not only been ineffective but would also risk disproportionately criminalizing people of color, the very communities where menthol cigarettes are consumed,’ Palomarez added. ‘We are delighted that the President has heard our concerns and we offer ourselves up as a resource to develop a comprehensive approach to public health.’

Dollars and cents

According to NACS, the rule would have led to a reduction of $72,285 a year in non-tobacco sundry sales and $160,107 a year in tobacco product sales for the typical convenience store nationwide. The organization projected that the convenience store industry could have collectively lost $2.16 billion in sales as a result of the regulations. 

In addition, government watchdog group Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) said the administration’s actions Friday confirmed its concerns it expressed last week when it sued HHS for withholding documents related to the regulations.

‘This announcement appears to confirm the basis for our lawsuit a few weeks ago on the proposed menthol cigarette ban. Public health authorities following the polling rather than the science is not a good look. It’s also a major reason why trust in our public health officials is at an all-time low,’ PPT Director Michael Chamberlain said. ‘This only heightens the need for transparency into what’s really driving decisions at the FDA.’


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