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Top Biden officials meet with Black, public health leaders following menthol ban delay

Top Biden administration officials this week met with prominent civil rights and public health leaders in the wake of the administration’s decision to delay a ban on menthol cigarettes. 

The unannounced meeting was not formally on the public schedule, but it followed a similar call officials had last month with tobacco industry lobbyists — including former lawmakers — who advocated against the proposed ban.

A little more than two weeks later, the White House officially delayed finalizing the ban until at least March.

Tuesday’s virtual meeting, which was requested by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, was attended by officials including Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Robert Califf, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra and White House domestic policy adviser Neera Tanden.

According to attendees, the meeting was organized after the delay was announced, and after public health groups questioned why tobacco lobbyists and industry-affiliated groups were able to secure a meeting with top administration officials. 

Among the public health and civil rights leaders who attended were Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP; David Satcher, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the first Black U.S. surgeon general; former HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan; and Yolanda Lawson, president of the National Medical Association, as well as leaders of the boards of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association.  

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is required to meet on regulatory actions with any interested party to discuss issues on a rule under review. The meetings are typically listening sessions and aren’t usually attended by top officials. 

The OMB has been holding dozens of meetings with outside groups about the policy since October, including retailers, civil rights groups and law enforcement officials. According to records, almost all the meetings have been with groups that oppose the ban.

Public health groups have been sounding the alarm that the White House could cave to pressure and delay the rule indefinitely, especially against the backdrop of President Biden’s reelection bid. 

The target date for releasing the rule was initially August, which was then pushed back to the end of the year. The White House in its regulatory agenda set a new target for March 2024.   

A menthol ban has been more than a decade in the making and would be one of the most consequential policies from the FDA since it began regulating tobacco in 2009. Health officials and tobacco control advocates have said such a move could save hundreds of thousands of lives, particularly among Black smokers.

An estimated 85 percent of Black smokers use menthols, according to the FDA, compared to 30 percent of white smokers. 

But the proposed ban split some prominent Black lawmakers and prominent members of the community, which critics allege is indicative of a long-standing industry practice to target the Black community and ally with leaders to sow division.  

Last month’s White House meeting with industry lobbyists also included high-profile civil rights attorney Ben Crump as well as a top executive from the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. 

Source: The Hill

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