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Lawsuit seeks to enforce a ban on menthol cigarettes after months of delays by the Biden administration

WASHINGTON (AP) — Anti-smoking groups sued the U.S. government Tuesday over a long-awaited ban on menthol cigarettes that has been stalled in the White House for months.

The lawsuit is the latest attempt to force the government to ban menthols, which are disproportionately used by black smokers and young people. It comes amid growing concerns from advocates that the federal plan could be derailed by election-year politics.

Health officials under president Joe Biden initially intended last August to publish the rule eliminating the minty taste. Late last year, White House officials said it would take until March to revise the rule. Three nonprofits, including Action on Smoking and Health, filed their lawsuit in a California federal court after the March deadline passed.

“Because of Defendants’ inaction, tobacco companies have continued to use menthol cigarettes to target youth, women and the Black community – all at the expense of public health,” the groups say in their complaint.

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A White House spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit on Tuesday.

The Food and Drug Administration has spent years developing a plan to eliminate menthol, and estimates that it could prevent 300,000 to 650,000 smoking-related deaths over decades. Most of those preventable deaths would be among black Americans.

Like all major federal regulations, the plan must receive final approval from the White House.

Previous FDA efforts on menthol have been scuttled by countermeasures from the tobacco industry or competing political priorities of different governments. The latest postponement comes as Democrats express concerns about Biden’s prospects in a rematch against former President Donald Trump.

White House officials have held dozens of meetings with groups opposed to the menthol ban, including civil rights advocates, entrepreneurs and law enforcement. Some suggested a rule targeting menthols could suppress Biden’s turnout among black voters. In almost all cases, groups opposing the ban receive financial support from tobacco companies.

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In recent months, supporters of the plan have tried to assure the White House that banning menthol will not hurt Biden’s re-election chances.

“If Black lives truly matter, we must end the sale of menthol cigarettes and do it now,” Dr. Carol McGruder of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership said in a statement. McGruder’s group is among those suing the FDA and its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services.

A lawyer who helped file the lawsuit said the government has about two months to respond.

A 2020 lawsuit by the same groups sparked the FDA’s work on menthol, claiming the agency had “unreasonably delayed” action against the flavor.

Menthol is the only cigarette flavor not banned under the 2009 law that gave the FDA authority over tobacco products, an exemption negotiated by industry lobbyists. However, the law directed the agency to continue weighing whether menthol should be banned.

The persistence of the flavor has infuriated anti-smoking advocates, who point to research that menthol’s numbing effect masks the harshness of smoking, making it easier to start and harder to quit.

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More than 11% of American adults smoke, with rates roughly equal between white and black populations. About 80% of black smokers – and most teenage smokers – use menthol.

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Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed to this story

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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