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House approves bill banning flavored tobacco products

The Hill logo The Hill 2/28/2020 Jessie Hellmann
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A ban on flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco products passed the House Friday but divided Democrats, with some saying it unfairly targets African Americans.

The bill, which passed 213-195 and was sponsored by Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), a former health secretary under President Clinton, is intended to curb the rise of youth vaping rates by banning non-tobacco flavors such as mint and mango that public health experts say lure children into smoking.

It would also ban menthol cigarettes, which are disproportionately used by African Americans after years of targeted marketing by tobacco companies.

While most Democrats supported the measure, some members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted against the bill, worrying it could give police a way to target African Americans.

"This legislation has dire, unintended consequences for American Americans," said Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), a member of the CBC. "Law enforcement would have an additional reason to stop and frisk menthol tobacco users because menthol would be considered illegal under this ban."

She also took issue with the fact that the bill exempts premium cigars favored by white people but took aim at products used by black people.

"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," Clarke told The Hill Thursday.

Concern over the bill grew this week when the American Civil Liberties Union, which has a strong pull in the Democratic Party, circulated a letter outlining its opposition.

"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.

But other members of the CBC noted Friday that tobacco companies have targeted African Americans for years in their "predatory" marketing of menthol products, putting them at risk for smoking-related disease and death.

"Smoking cigarettes, especially menthol flavored cigarettes, has resulted in approximately 45,000 African American deaths each and every year," said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.)

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), another member of the CBC, said on the House floor, "I'm not here to target people of color. I'm here to save lives."

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), aware of the opposition from some members of the CBC, touted support for the bill on Thursday from the NAACP, the National Black Nurses Association and the National Medical Association, which represents African American doctors and their patients.

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.

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.

The bill would also ban online sales of e-cigarettes and restrict advertising and marketing of those products.

"We need to ban flavors across the board because that's what masks the nicotine and makes people think that it's OK," Pallone said.

An estimated 5.4 million middle and high school students were using e-cigarettes in 2019, according to government data.

Leading public health groups that support the legislation, including the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and the American Lung Association, argue the bans represent the best way to tamp down rising youth vaping rates.

Public health experts have argued for years that menthol cigarettes should be banned. Menthol helps reduce the harshness of cigarette smoke, making it harder to quit, experts say.

While the U.S. has made great strides in reducing smoking rates, smoking is still responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year, according to the CDC.

The Senate is unlikely to consider the bill, and President Trump's advisers said Thursday they would recommend he veto it in its current form.
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