New York Times Examines Congressional Black Caucus’ Position on Tobacco Regulation Bill
The New York Times on Friday examined how a "rift has opened in the 43-member" Congressional Black Caucus over a bill (HR 1108) that would allow FDA to regulate tobacco products. A provision in the bill would allow FDA to prohibit most flavor additives in tobacco products, with the exception of menthol.
Some members of the caucus are calling for narrowing the exemption or banning ban menthol outright, while other members are against changes, saying adjustments to the legislation could hurt its chances of passing. According to the Times, lawmakers said they had to include the exemption as a way to gain support for the legislation. The bill currently has broad support in the House, as well as from many public health groups and Philip Morris USA.
Seventy-five percent of black smokers use mentholated tobacco products. Menthol brands account for about 28% of the $70 billion U.S. cigarette market, the Times reports.
It is thought that menthol and other additives might mask the harshness of tobacco, which could "make it easier for teenagers to begin smoking," the Times reports. Researchers also have questioned whether menthol might play a role in disproportionate rates of cancer related to smoking among blacks. A recent study from Harvard University found that some cigarette makers intentionally "manipulated menthol levels to attract young people," the Times reports.
Caucus Chair Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) said, "The caucus is split," adding, "We do want to see menthol regulated, but we're convinced that eliminating or prohibiting menthol would be a killer for the bill." According to Cheeks Kilpatric, the caucus is drafting an amendment to the bill that would potentially call for a study on menthol.
Caucus member and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who opposes the menthol exemption, said, "It's a very emotional issue."
Concern About Financial Contributions
Philip Morris historically has been one of the largest financial contributors to the caucus's Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and that history "can complicate matters when the political discussion involves smoking's impact on African-Americans," the Times reports. Philip Morris in some years donated as much as $250,000 to the caucus, and other tobacco companies have contributed lesser amounts "at times," according to the Times.
Such donations have the "reason some critics perceived an alliance between big tobacco and African-American members of Congress," the Times reports.
Cummings said that tobacco contributions might have influenced caucus members in the past but added, "When you look in a cancer patient's eye, I think it becomes much more difficult to look at the contributions that may be given to support the caucus and be swayed by them than it was before" (Saul, New York Times, 7/25).