Biden administration declares war on menthol, sparking opposition across political spectrum

"A menthol cigarette ban would disproportionately affect communities of color," the ACLU wrote

Published April 30, 2021 6:04PM (EDT)

Joe Biden | Menthol Cigarettes (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden | Menthol Cigarettes (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The White House is waging war on menthol — the last allowable flavoring in cigarettes — and flavored cigars, announcing Thursday that the administration intends to ban the popular additives in tobacco products.

It was the first shot in an uphill battle that advocates say would prevent the industry from marketing to children and minority communities with whom flavored tobacco has proven popular. 

"With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products," Acting Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Janet Woodcock outlined in a Thursday statement

The FDA also points to studies that suggest menthol cigarettes may be more addictive and harder to quit.

The announcement, however, brought a rare moment of unity as pundits from across the political spectrum bashed the measure, which many saw as heavy-handed. In the absence of details over the ban's implementation, some say it could be used as yet another way to criminalize Black communities, which smoke menthol cigarettes and flavored tobacco products in much higher numbers.

"Unless the federal government attempts to turn menthol itself into a controlled substance, there will surely be many small-time sellers of menthol cigarettes meeting the demand of the millions of Americans who smoke them, including at least 77 percent of black smokers, but possibly as high as 88 percent (and around a quarter of white smokers)," the libertarian publication Reason noted. 

A letter from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), obtained by CBS' Bo Erickson, stated that the move would have "serious racial justice implications" due to criminal penalties, which could "disproportionately impact people of color."

"A menthol cigarette ban would disproportionately affect communities of color, resulting in criminalization and more incarceration," the ACLU tweeted. "We can avoid this approach." 

Olayemi Olurin, a public defender at The Legal Aid Society, also wrote on Twitter, "Why specifically menthol cigarettes as opposed to all cigarettes? This is clear, shameless criminalization targeted at the Black community. Why is it that the only way they ever seem to want to "help" our communities is by creating more routes to incarceration." 

Even some high-profile conservatives latched onto the same criticism.

"Benefit!?" By banning something people like? Only politicians, credulous reporters, and safety totalitarians think that way. This just creates a new black market that will needlessly send MORE black Americans to prison," libertarian television star John Stossel tweeted

Actress turned far-right QAnon supporter Kirstie Alley remarked, "Ok, I haven't smoked for 5 years but let me get this straight... the FDA is gonna ban menthol cigarettes because they entice teens .. but WEED is now legal in most places? We are all headed to hell."

"NOT KOOL: Biden Administration Considering Ban on Menthol Flavored Tobacco Products," Fox News host Sean Hannity, who has been caught smoking on his primetime show, titled one of the posts that appeared on his website.

Right-wing radio host Sebastian Gorka also wrote on Instagram: "Biden's biggest threats for America: 'White Supremacist Terrorism' and menthol cigarettes. These people are just clowns." 

By Zachary Petrizzo

Zachary Petrizzo was an investigative reporter at Salon. Follow him on Twitter @ZTPetrizzo.

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