Health Care

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 Clyburn (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 Shalala (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. 

Congress shouldn’t “tell full-grown adults, those over 21, what they can and cannot do with a legal product,” said Rep. A. Donald McEachin (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-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Katie Porter (Calif.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Yvette Clarke (N.Y.), G.K. Butterfield (N.C.), Joe Cunningham (S.C.), Ben McAdams (Utah) and Abigail Spanberger (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. 

“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.

“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 Rush (Ill.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Lauren Underwood (Ill.), Lisa Blunt Rochester (Del.), Terri Sewell (Ala.), John Lewis (Ga.) and Ayanna Pressley (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.

Tags Abigail Spanberger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ayanna Pressley Barbara Lee Bobby Rush Donald McEachin Donna Shalala G.K. Butterfield Ilhan Omar Joe Cunningham John Lewis Lauren Underwood Rashida Tlaib Terri Sewell

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