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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 ClyburnPelosi, leaders seek to squelch Omar controversy with rare joint statement Black Republican advocates his case for CBC membership Meet the most powerful woman in Washington not named Pelosi or Harris 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 ShalalaPelosi, Schumer must appoint new commissioners to the CARES Act oversight panel Stephanie Murphy won't run for Senate seat in Florida next year Crist launches bid for Florida governor, seeking to recapture his old job 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 McEachinEnd the practice of hitting children in public schools Political disenfranchisement is fueling environmental injustice White House names members of environmental justice panel 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-CortezHouse Democrats unveil spending bill to boost staff pay, maintain lawmaker pay freeze Five takeaways from New York's primaries Ocasio-Cortez says she ranked Wiley first, Stringer second in NYC mayoral vote MORE (N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarYoung Turks founder on Democratic establishment: 'They lie nonstop' Hillary Clinton backs Shontel Brown in Ohio congressional race The Hill's Morning Report - Dems to go-it-alone on infrastructure as bipartisan plan falters MORE (Minn.), Katie Porter (Calif.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibHouse Republicans introduce resolution to censure the 'squad' Progressives rally behind Omar while accusing her critics of bias Omar: I wasn't equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries MORE (Mich.), Yvette Clarke (N.Y.), G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldDemocratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack Lobbying world The Memo: How liberal will the Biden presidency be? MORE (N.C.), Joe CunninghamJoseph CunninghamJoe Cunningham to enter race for South Carolina governor Republicans race for distance from 'America First Caucus' Lobbying world MORE (S.C.), Ben McAdams (Utah) and Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerRising violent crime poses new challenge for White House The Memo: Democratic tensions will only get worse as left loses patience Five takeaways on the House's return to budget earmarks 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 RushGranholm expresses openness to pipeline cyber standards after Colonial attack Feds eye more oversight of pipelines after Colonial attack Shining a light on COINTELPRO's dangerous legacy MORE (Ill.), Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeOvernight Defense: House votes to repeal 2002 Iraq war powers | Pentagon leaders press senators to reimburse National Guard | New pressure on US-Iran nuclear talks House votes to repeal 2002 Iraq war powers Overnight Defense: Biden, Putin agree to launch arms control talks at summit | 2002 war authorization repeal will get Senate vote | GOP rep warns Biden 'blood with be on his hands' without Afghan interpreter evacuation MORE (Calif.), Lauren UnderwoodLauren UnderwoodHollywood goes all in for the For the People Act McAuliffe looms large as Virginia Democrats pick governor nominee For The People Act will empower small donors and increase representation in our democracy MORE (Ill.), Lisa Blunt Rochester (Del.), Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellAlabama museum unveils restored Greyhound bus for Freedom Rides' 60th anniversary Rep. Terri Sewell declines to run for Senate in Alabama Amazon union battle comes to Washington MORE (Ala.), John LewisJohn LewisCan Manchin answer his predecessor's call on voting rights? Biden to deliver remarks on voting access next week Schumer vows next steps after 'awful' GOP election bill filibuster MORE (Ga.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyDemocrats urge Biden to extend moratorium on student loan payments The Memo: Some Democrats worry rising crime will cost them It's past time we elect a Black woman governor 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.