House Votes to Ban Flavors in Cigarettes and E-Cigarettes

WASHINGTON — The House, taking aim at youth vaping and tobacco use, voted Friday to ban the sale of flavored cigarettes and e-cigarette liquids, even as civil rights advocates and some African-American Democrats raised concerns that the legislation unfairly targeted black people.

The bill is aimed at curbing what public health experts see as an epidemic of youth vaping by banning online sales of e-cigarettes, as well as liquid flavors like mint, mango, cotton candy and bubble gum. But it also bans flavors in regular cigarettes, including menthol, which is popular among African-Americans.

That goes further than a partial ban announced by President Trump last month, which would forbid the sale of most flavored e-cigarette cartridges, but exempt menthol and other tobacco flavors. The bill’s fate in the Senate is unclear in the Senate, where Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader who represents the tobacco-producing state of Kentucky, has not given any indication that he would bring it up for a vote.

The House measure passed by a vote of 213-195 that ran largely along party lines, with all but five Republicans and some Democrats from tobacco-producing states voting against it. Opponents argued that it amounted to unnecessary overreach by “big government, liberal elites, telling adults what they cannot do,” as Representative Richard Hudson, Republican of North Carolina, said on the House floor.

But the American Civil Liberties Union and some black lawmakers warned about it for another reason: its menthol ban, they argue, could lead to over-policing in black communities.

Among those who have expressed concerns is Representative Jim Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina and the highest-ranking African-American in the House. His office said he did not oppose the bill, but he did not vote on Friday. Another black Democrat, Representative Yvette Clarke of New York, wrote in an op-ed published Thursday in The Hill newspaper that the measure “feels more like a targeted attack than a value-neutral health care policy decision.”

“Considering the fact that 90 percent of black smokers use menthol products, menthol tobacco users would live in fear of new stop-and-frisk opportunities under this legislation, because menthol would now be considered an illegal flavor,” she wrote.

For some opponents, the measure evokes painful memories of Eric Garner, the New York man who died after police put him in chokehold while arresting him for selling loose cigarettes. In a letter circulated to lawmakers this week, the A.C.L.U. quoted Gwendolyn Carr, Mr. Garner’s mother.

“When you ban a product sold mostly in black communities, you must consider the reality of what will happen to that very same overrepresented community in the criminal justice system,” the letter quoted Ms. Carr as saying.

But other African-American lawmakers, including Representative Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, have expressed support for banning menthol cigarettes. Representative Donna E. Shalala, Democrat of Florida and a health secretary during the Clinton administration, said the cigarette makers — not lawmakers — are the ones responsible for negative consequences for African Americans.

“Cigarette companies are targeting the African-American community — they are the ones that have infected that community,” said Ms. Shalala, who is a lead sponsor of the measure. “Eight-five percent of African-Americans who smoke, smoke menthol cigarettes. Seventy percent of African-American kids that are vaping are now vaping menthol.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi used part of her weekly news conference on Thursday to defend the vaping measure. She cited a letter supporting the bill signed by African-American doctors and nurses’ organizations, as well as the N.A.A.C.P.

“For decades, big tobacco has targeted African-Americans with menthol cigarettes, with devastating consequences,” the speaker said, reading aloud from the letter, which noted the “high death rates from lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and other smoking‑related illnesses” among African-Americans.

The letter said the tobacco industry was “using e‑cigarettes to hook a new generation with flavors like bubble gum, mint, mango and menthol.”

The bill, which would also require the Food and Drug Administration to place “colored graphics” on cigarette cartons depicting the health effects of smoking, comes amid rising concern among public health experts about the use of tobacco products — and in particular e-cigarettes — among young people.

But the divisions it spawned among Democrats reflected the power of industry groups that have strongly resisted federal attempts to regulate vaping and e-cigarettes, finding common cause with civil rights organizations, anti-tax groups and others across the political spectrum.

Mr. Trump last fall announced his intent to ban most of the products, saying, “We can’t have our kids be so affected.” But under pressure from industry groups and on the advice of political advisers who said the move would be unpopular, he retreated, and ultimately scaled back the limits. He recently complained privately that he should never have made the move.

Nearly one in three high school students has reported using a tobacco product recently, according to a federal survey released in October. For the sixth year in a row, e-cigarettes dominated the students’ choice, the study found.

Congress in December banned the sale of tobacco and e-cigarettes to anyone under 21, approving the measure as part of a sweeping year-end spending bill, but many proponents argued for going further and imposing a flavor ban.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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