When the Biden administration quietly let its deadline to approve a ban on menthol cigarettes pass earlier this year, advocates condemned the lack of action, urging public health officials to move forward on a decision that could save up to 654,000 lives over the next 40 years.

But on Friday, the administration officially delayed the ban as political pressure and criticism ramps up.

“This rule has garnered historic attention and the public comment period has yielded an immense amount of feedback, including from various elements of the civil rights and criminal justice movement,” said Xavier Becerra, the Health and Human Services secretary, in a statement. “It’s clear that there are still more conversations to have, and that will take significantly more time.” Becerra's statement did not indicate a clear timeline on when the administration will make a final decision.

The decision comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed by three organizations against the U.S. government over the repeated delays in approving a proposed ban. Two of those plaintiffs are Black-led groups, calling on the federal government to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored tobacco because of their detriment to health and their controversial history.

“This decision prioritizes politics over lives,” said Yolonda Richardson, the president and CEO for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, in a statement. “There is absolutely no reason to further study or delay a rule that has been studied for more than 12 years, is supported by overwhelming scientific evidence, and will save hundreds of thousands of lives, especially Black lives. Make no mistake: Delays cost lives.”


Read More: This Lawsuit May Decide the Fate of Menthol Cigarettes


Big Tobacco strategically marketed menthols, which were scientifically concocted to be easier to smoke and harder to quit, to America’s Black communities for decades. The result? Today, more than 80% of Black smokers opt for the product.

Although Black folks tend to smoke fewer cigarettes and start at a later age than white Americans, they’re more likely to die from smoking-related illnesses, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tobacco use contributes to heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Those are the three leading causes of death for Black Americans.

The administration delayed a ban in December, then missed its self-imposed deadline to approve the rules in March. With the most recent announcement, the decision is kicked back even further.

“Health-care advocates, including many Black physicians, have worked tirelessly toward a ban of menthol cigarette products,” said Dr. Yolanda Lawson, president of the National Medical Association.

Advocates worry about all the young smokers who might start in the meantime, as well as all the children in households with menthol smokers who will continue to be exposed. Many groups, including the NAACP, worry that the Biden administration’s delays are an attempt to appease Black voters who might also smoke menthol cigarettes.

“We are disappointed with the action of the Biden Administration,” said Dr. Mark A. Mitchell, chair of the NMA’s Council on Environmental Health and Climate Change. “We will continue to have Black children targeted for addiction and the health and lives of our patients ruined as long as the Administration delays a total ban on menthol.”

But advocates say that’s not among the top concerns for voters as the 2024 election approaches, and it’s unlikely to harm Biden’s reelection prospects.

The recent news is the latest in blow in a years-long game of legal maneuvering and White House delays, which began in 2009 when menthol cigarettes were left out of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which banned other flavors.

The ban currently up for debate seeks to close an open loophole from 2009.

In an email, Delmonte Jefferson, the executive director of the Center for Black Health & Equity, said:

“Politics should not supersede public health.”

Margo Snipe is a health reporter at Worldacad. Twitter @margoasnipe