In the galaxy of bad decisions made by President Biden, the proposal to ban menthol cigarettes doesn’t rank high up the list. It is, however, another reminder of just how terrible the president is at politics, an arena in which he should shine.
After all, Mr. Biden has done nothing in his entire life but politics. He hasn’t run a car dealership or renovated homes; he hasn’t harvested corn or operated Dunkin’ Donut franchises. If he is truthful about not having engaged with his son Hunter’s business dealings, it’s probably because no one thought he had much to add.
No, Mr. Biden has spent his entire life in politics, mostly in the Senate and the White House, but his learning curve appears flat as a pancake.
Let us consider the FDA’s newly announced ban on manufacturing or selling menthol cigarettes, which is meant to take effect two years from now.
The tobacco industry is understandably pushing back hard, since menthols make up more than a third of the cigarettes sold in the U.S. and generate more than $20 billion in sales each year. That’s a big hit.
The rationale for getting the products off the market is that menthol cigarettes are especially popular with young people and encouraging youth smoking is bad for the nation’s health. That is compelling; there’s little doubt that the decline in smoking has produced good health outcomes, not just in the U.S. but worldwide.
Consider the politics, though: The other group that is especially keen on menthols is black Americans. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that 81 percent of black smokers, compared to 51 percent of Hispanics and 30 percent of whites, favor menthols. So, a key support group for Mr. Biden would be the population segment most annoyed to find their favorite cigarettes no longer available.
After all, it was African-American backing in the 2020 South Carolina Democratic primary, spurred by Representative James Clyburn, that turned around Mr. Biden’s sinking fortunes and gave him the chance to run for the Oval Office.
More recently, Mr. Biden’s approval among blacks has dropped. According to Gallup, the president’s approval among African-American adults has declined from 87 percent early in his term to 67 percent more recently. That could spell disaster for Democrats, who traditionally count on more than 90 percent of the black vote.
Multiple surveys show black voters unhappy about inflation and rising crime in their neighborhoods, and blaming Joe Biden. Beyond that, support from this group tanked when Mr. Biden imposed the vaccine mandate, which was extremely unpopular with, especially, unvaccinated blacks.
So why would Mr. Biden do anything to further alienate African-American voters?
Note that President Obama, who signed a law in 2009 giving the FDA jurisdiction over tobacco for the first time, declined to ban menthols, even as his administration did prohibit sales of candy-flavored products because of their appeal to young people. It is likely that Mr. Obama, an astute politician whose support among black voters was rock-solid by comparison, understood just how unpopular the move might be to a core constituency.
Those promoting a ban say menthols make it harder to quit smoking. Translation: People really, really like menthol cigarettes. Hence, they are going to be furious to find them unavailable.
Just as Americans were irate that the government took traditional 100-watt light bulbs off the shelves and Brits were apoplectic that the EU outlawed the electric tea pots found in nearly every UK home (I argued at the time the ham-fisted move might lead to Brexit), making menthol cigarettes illegal will almost surely cut into Mr. Biden’s black support. Support he desperately needs to hold onto.
Joe Biden is in trouble on so many fronts that alienating some black voters may not matter much in the end. But as unpopular policies like these pile up, it is no wonder that Mr. Biden has epically low approval ratings and is dragging his party down with him.
Next up: forgiving student loans, which will surely anger a good portion of the 58 percent of the country that did not go to college. Mr. Biden’s on a roll … downhill.
Published on The New York Sun