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 ClyburnBiden and BLM must set aside differences, focus on beating Trump The blessing of Black men: Our lives, our voices, and our votes matter Democratic leaders press GOP to update Voting Rights Act 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 ShalalaJohn Kerry hosting virtual campaign events for Biden The sad spectacle of Trump's enablers The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Former NIC Director Greg Treverton rips US response; WHO warns of 'immediate second peak' if countries reopen too quickly 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 Democrats seek to codify environmental inequality mapping tool  House coronavirus bill aims to prevent utility shutoffs OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Oil prices jump amid partial reopenings | Bill aims to block fossil fuel firms from coronavirus aid | Tribes to receive some coronavirus aid after court battle 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-CortezHispanic Caucus asks Trump to rescind invitation to Mexican president Nadler wins Democratic primary The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue MORE (N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid Black lives and the CBC: What happens to a dream deferred? MORE (Minn.), Katie Porter (Calif.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid Ocasio-Cortez pitches interns to work for her instead of McConnell MORE (Mich.), Yvette Clarke (N.Y.), G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldHouse passes police reform bill that faces dead end in Senate Black Caucus rallies behind Meeks for Foreign Affairs gavel House to pass sweeping police reform legislation MORE (N.C.), Joe CunninghamJoseph CunninghamHarrison goes on the attack against Graham in new South Carolina Senate ad Club for Growth unleashes financial juggernaut for 2020 races Focus shifts to House after Senate passes major public lands bill MORE (S.C.), Ben McAdams (Utah) and Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerTrade groups make lobbying push to be included in small business loan program Virginia GOP to pick House nominee after candidate misses filing deadline Gun control group rolls out House endorsements 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 RushFauci: Institutional racism playing role in disproportionate coronavirus impact on Black community Bobby Rush likens Chicago police union to KKK: 'Racist body of criminal lawlessness' Rep. Bobby Rush says Chicago officers lounged in his office as nearby stores were looted MORE (Ill.), Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeNina Turner addresses Biden's search for a running mate House to vote on removing bust of Supreme Court justice who wrote Dred Scott ruling Black Caucus unveils next steps to combat racism MORE (Calif.), Lauren UnderwoodLauren UnderwoodThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Rodney Davis says most important thing White House can do on COVID-19 is give consistent messaging; US new cases surpass 50k for first time The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump takes victory lap after strong jobs report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump lays low as approval hits 18-month low MORE (Ill.), Lisa Blunt Rochester (Del.), Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellDemocratic leaders press GOP to update Voting Rights Act New nonprofit aims to rename Edmund Pettus Bridge after John Lewis More than 100K sign petition to rename Edmund Pettus Bridge after John Lewis MORE (Ala.), John LewisJohn LewisWarnock raises almost M in Georgia Senate race in second quarter Texans receiver Kenny Stills shows off 'Black Lives Matter' tattoo honoring protesters Celebrities fundraise for Markey ahead of Massachusetts Senate primary MORE (Ga.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressives zero in on another House chairman in primary Ocasio-Cortez pitches interns to work for her instead of McConnell 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.