Long-awaited ban on menthol cigarettes could be delayed into 2024, public health groups fear

The long-awaited ban on menthol cigarettes may not be announced by the end of the year, but pushed to 2024, according to officials from two national public health groups working to remove the products from the market.

Both requested anonymity to discuss the decision ahead of any announcement from the Biden administration. The delay could be announced as early as next week, they suggested.

Officials from the public health groups worry that the ban may be punted well into next year, perhaps even after the November presidential election.

One of the officials was “deeply concerned” that the ban would not be put into place before the 2024 election.

“Everything gets harder to do in an election year because people are distracted and bandwidth is stretched,” the official said.

The White House declined to comment.

A ban on menthol cigarettes has been in the works for more than a decade. A 2013 citizen petition prompted the Food and Drug Administration to ban menthol as a flavor in cigarettes, but rules to finalize a ban have been sluggish.

In January, Brian King, the director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said the agency was committed to completing the rulemaking process for the ban in 2023. The FDA went on to miss its own self-imposed deadline of August.

Menthol use predominantly affects people of color.

Nearly 85% of Black smokers use menthols, compared to 30% of white smokers, according to the FDA. Black men and women are far less likely than white Americans to be diagnosed with lung cancer at an earlier stage, when the disease is often more treatable. Black men have the highest lung cancer death rate in the U.S.

Public health groups such as the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association have been vocal about the need for an end to menthol tobacco products.

“The American Lung Association expects the White House to honor President Biden’s commitment to end cancer as we know it through the Cancer Moonshot,” said Erika Sward, assistant vice president for national advocacy at the American Lung Association. It “cannot be achieved unless the White House finalizes” rules banning menthol products.

“Removing these products from the market is backed by strong scientific evidence and hundreds of thousands of public comments from the public health community nationwide,” said Nancy Brown, chief executive officer for the American Heart Association. “The administration should not delay further in putting these rules into effect.”

On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration said that finalizing rules to ban menthol tobacco products “remains a top priority.”

“Final rules such as these go through an extensive rulemaking process, including agency review and consideration of public comments, development of the final rule, and subsequent review by the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House Office of Management and Budget,” an FDA spokesperson said. The OMB has posted the final rules, which is considered the last step before the bans are finalized.

The Biden administration has been conducting ongoing meetings to discuss the issue with the tobacco industry and public health groups.

Menthol cigarettes are notoriously addictive. When inhaled, the menthol produces a cooling sensation in the throat, reducing the irritation of nicotine and the harsh taste of cigarettes, essentially making the cigarettes easier to smoke.

Menthols are also difficult to quit. Menthol smokers successfully quit at lower rates than nonmenthol smokers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“People are dying. This will save lives. We have the science and data to prove it,” one official said. “It is long past time to take these products off the market.”