Bill banning menthol in cigarettes divides Democrats, with some seeing racial bias

Bill banning menthol in cigarettes divides Democrats, with some seeing racial bias
© Anna Moneymaker

A bill that would ban menthol flavoring in cigarettes is dividing House Democrats, with some arguing it unfairly targets African Americans and could lead police to target communities of color. 

The measure, which the House will vote on Friday, is opposed by some members of the Congressional Black Caucus. House Majority Whip Rep. Jim ClyburnJames (Jim) Enos ClyburnHow to get coronavirus oversight right Democrats struggle to keep up with Trump messaging on coronavirus Why Gretchen Whitmer's stock is rising with Team Biden MORE (D-S.C.), a prominent CBC member, also has concerns with the bill, he told reporters Thursday. 

The bill, sponsored by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Rep. Donna ShalalaDonna Edna ShalalaTrump coronavirus response seen as threat to CDC confidence House Democrats unveil coronavirus economic response package CBS All Access launches animated 'Tooning Out the News' series MORE (D-Fla.), a former health secretary, is meant to reduce youth vaping rates by banning flavors like mint and mango in e-cigarettes. But it also bans flavors in all tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, which are disproportionately used by African Americans after years of targeted marketing by tobacco companies. 

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Congress shouldn’t “tell full-grown adults, those over 21, what they can and cannot do with a legal product,” said Rep. A. Donald McEachinAston (Donale) Donald McEachinHouse approves bill banning flavored tobacco products Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — California monitoring 8,400 people for coronavirus | Pence taps career official to coordinate response | Dems insist on guardrails for funding Overnight Energy: Murkowski, Manchin unveil major energy bill | Lawmakers grill EPA chief over push to slash agency's budget | GOP lawmaker accuses Trump officials of 'playing politics' over Yucca Mountain MORE (D-Va.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, who also cited concerns about policing communities of color.

“I'm not a smoker, so I would never smoke. But you know, for those who do, they ought to be able to smoke what they want to smoke,” he said.

On Thursday, 11 Democrats voted against the rule that sets up the terms of Friday’s debate: Reps. McEachin, Al Lawson (Fla.), Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezWhat the coronavirus reveals about the race grievance industry Democrats struggle to keep up with Trump messaging on coronavirus Overnight Health Care: Global coronavirus cases top 1M | Cities across country in danger of becoming new hotspots | Trump to recommend certain Americans wear masks | Record 6.6M file jobless claims MORE (N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarTexas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill Undocumented aliens should stay away as COVID-19 rages in the US The Southern Poverty Law Center and yesterday's wars MORE (Minn.), Katie Porter (Calif.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibDemocrats eye additional relief checks for coronavirus 20 House Dems call on Trump to issue two-week, nationwide shelter-in-place order Pressley, Tlaib introduce bill providing .5B in emergency grants for the homeless MORE (Mich.), Yvette Clarke (N.Y.), G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldHouse approves bill banning flavored tobacco products Bill banning menthol in cigarettes divides Democrats, with some seeing racial bias Biden cinches support from third NC House Democrat MORE (N.C.), Joe CunninghamJoseph CunninghamHouse chairwoman diagnosed with 'presumed' coronavirus infection Capitol officials extend suspension of tourist access until May Second Capitol Police officer tests positive for coronavirus MORE (S.C.), Ben McAdams (Utah) and Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerJuan Williams: Biden's promises on women are a big deal Security contractor Erik Prince reportedly recruited ex-spies to help Project Veritas infiltrate liberal groups Hillicon Valley: Barr offers principles to prevent online child exploitation | Facebook removes misleading Trump census ads | House passes bill banning TSA use of TikTok MORE (Va.)

It's unclear if the bill is threatened. Supporters can lose those 11 Democrats and still pass the legislation. Yet McEachin said he knows Democrats who voted for the rule but plan to vote against the bill Friday. He did not say how many.

Other members are upset that the bill exempts high-end cigars used by wealthy white people, but not menthol cigarettes, which are favored by African Americans. 

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"The message that we're sending is that, you know, for poorer communities — communities with less franchise that are gonna be over-policed — we're going to add an extra burden to them,” said Clarke.

Members became more concerned this week when the American Civil Liberties Union, which has a strong pull in the Democratic party, circulated a letter outlining its opposition to the bill.

“We hope we can work together to avoid repetitions of policies that are intended to protect youth and communities of color, but instead only further engrain systemic criminalization and racism,” the letter reads.

Democrats hope to pass the bill to present a contrast to the Trump administration’s approach to youth vaping rates. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) began enforcing a limited ban earlier this month on flavored pod-products, like those sold by Juul, with exemptions for menthol and tobacco flavors. It also exempted open-tank and disposable e-cigarettes. Democratic leadership is also looking for another win on health care ahead of the November elections. 

Pelosi on Thursday appeared to be well aware of the concerns within the CBC. In promoting the legislation ahead of Friday's votes, she rattled off a host of groups representing people of color — including the NAACP, the National Medical Association and the National Black Nurses Association — which have endorsed the bill.

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"The list goes on and on. There are 75 organizations representing the public health of communities of color and teachers in support of the bill," she said during a press briefing in the Capitol.

Unbidden, Pelosi then read a long passage from an endorsement letter signed by those groups.

"So we're hoping to have a good vote tomorrow on that," Pelosi said.

African Americans are much more likely to use menthol cigarettes than white smokers, and are more likely to die from smoking-related illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Menthol helps reduce the harshness of cigarette smoke, making it harder to quit, experts say. 

Several members of the CBC are co-sponsors of the bill, including Democratic Reps. Bobby RushBobby Lee RushBobby Rush wins Illinois House primary Illinois governor endorses Biden one day before primary Biden rolls out over a dozen congressional endorsements after latest primary wins MORE (Ill.), Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeCBS All Access launches animated 'Tooning Out the News' series Bill banning menthol in cigarettes divides Democrats, with some seeing racial bias Democrats spar with DeVos at hearing, say Trump budget would 'privatize education' MORE (Calif.), Lauren UnderwoodLauren UnderwoodMillennials are the unseen leaders in the coronavirus crisis Jim Oberweis wins GOP primary to challenge Illinois Rep. Lauren Underwood Castro forms PAC, boosts five House candidates MORE (Ill.), Lisa Blunt Rochester (Del.), Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellDemocratic candidates gear up for a dramatic Super Tuesday Bill banning menthol in cigarettes divides Democrats, with some seeing racial bias Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements MORE (Ala.), John LewisJohn LewisThe Hill's Campaign Report: Wisconsin votes despite coronavirus pandemic The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump: Tough times but progress being made John Lewis endorses Biden for president MORE (Ga.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyMaryland Legislative Black Caucus pushes for state to release racial breakdown of coronavirus impact Pressley experiencing flu-like symptoms, being tested for COVID-19 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - Senate overcomes hurdles, passes massive coronavirus bill MORE (Mass.).

“Our work to end the smoking epidemic is not simply a matter of public health," said Pressley at a hearing in December.

"This is and always has been an issue of racial justice," she said.

Updated at 5:55 pm.