What Biden’s Menthol Ban Means for North Carolina

Short answer: Legalize weed. Also: Biden’s Great Society + a seditionist for Senate + the Brown body-cam cover-up + the widespread pollution killing people of color

Thurs., April 29, 2021

Scheduling update: I’m planning to take off from the newsletter next week to focus on features. I won’t speak categorically: something big could happen, or I could have more free time than I expect, or maybe someone will volunteer to take over. Who knows? But if I disappear from your inbox for a few days, don’t worry, I’ll be back soon.

Weather: Partly cloudy, high near 90. Hope you enjoyed “spring.”

Today’s Big Story, By the Numbers

77.8 Billion

Mentholated cigarettes sold in the United States in 2018, according to reports from the Federal Trade Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Market share, in percent, of menthol cigarettes in 2018.

  • 216.9 billion cigarettes were sold that year.

  • Since the government began keeping records in 1963, U.S. cigarette consumption peaked in 1981 at 640 billion cigarettes.


Market share, in percent, of Newport, the largest menthol cigarette maker. It is second only to Malboro, which has 40% of the cigarette market. Marlboro also makes menthols.

8.4 Billion

Amount, in dollars, the four major tobacco manufacturers—Altria Group (Phillip Morris, i.e., Malboro), ITG Brands (Winston, Kool), Reynolds American (Newport, Camel, Pall Mall), and Vector Group (Liggett Select, discount brands I’ve never heard of)—spent on advertising in 2018.

  • The three most heavily advertised brands—Marlboro, Newport, and Camel—are the three most preferred by young people.


Percentage of menthol users who were Black in the years 2012–2014.

  • Studies show that menthol cigs are even more addictive are harder to quit than non-menthol smokes.

  • The industry has denied targeted menthols to people of color.


Yesterday, the Biden administration signaled that it is going to ban menthol cigarettes. But this isn't exactly a Biden initiative. In fact, it’s been in the works for a decade; until now, however, the FDA has been reluctant to pull the trigger. And it’s only doing so faced with a court deadline.

  • “The administration also is poised to say it will seek to ban menthol and other flavors in mass-produced cigars, including small cigars popular with young people.”

  • “The Food and Drug Administration faces a court deadline Thursday to respond to a 2013 citizen petition seeking a menthol-cigarette ban. The suit was filed by public health groups last year to compel the FDA to respond to the petition.”

  • “In 2009, as part of the law that gave the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco, Congress banned all flavors in cigarettes except menthol and directed the FDA to study the issue. During the Obama administration, the agency and its outside advisers found that banning menthol cigarettes would improve public health and save lives, but the administration never moved forward.”

  • “During the Trump administration, momentum for a prohibition appeared to pick up. Scott Gottlieb, who was FDA commissioner at the time, said he would propose a menthol ban, but subsequently left the agency. The effort foundered amid a lack of White House support and vociferous opposition from the industry and its congressional allies.”

That vociferous opposition hasn’t gone away. It will be there throughout the FDA’s lengthy rulemaking process, and once the menthol ban is finished, it will manifest in lawsuits arguing that the FDA has overstepped its authority. Given the makeup of the Supreme Court, the industry has a better-than-nil chance of prevailing.

  • FWIW: The UK banned menthols last year.

If the industry doesn’t win in court, the Biden administration might regulate it into oblivion:

  • “The administration is still considering another long-sought goal of antismoking activists: requiring tobacco companies to lower the amount of nicotine in cigarettes to nonaddictive levels. But it will not announce action on that issue this week, said the people with knowledge of the situation.” (WaPo)

The tobacco industry is already in decline—in North Carolina, which leads the country in production—and everywhere else it is grown.

As of 2014, tobacco was a $911 million industry in the state. I can’t find more recent data—if you have it, please send—but it seems likely that number has declined significantly. It’s not just that domestic consumption has fallen. It’s also the Trump administration’s trade war. In 2017, North Carolina farmers exported $162 million worth of tobacco to China; in 2018, just $4 million.

The menthol ban will probably damage North Carolina’s remaining tobacco economy. We grow a lot of what’s called flue-cured tobacco, and according to the FDA, “Unlike most non-menthol cigarettes, menthol cigarettes usually contain more flue-cured and less burley tobacco, along with reconstituted tobacco made without added ammonia.”

Of course, there is a ready-made solution as America trades one vice for another: cannabis, which grows under roughly the same conditions as tobacco.

  • It started with hemp, which Congress legalized in 2018. The General Assembly followed suit a year later, expanding a narrow pilot program to allow farmers to grow plants from which to manufacture CBD products (which have very low levels of the sinful hallucinogen THC).

  • If farmers were allowed to manufacture cannabis plants for medical or recreational marijuana use—here or to sell in states where it is or will soon be legal, such as Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Florida, and even (depending on its Supreme Court) Mississippi)—the blow from tobacco’s inevitable collapse would be softened considerably.

  • This is a major cash crop—and a major opportunity to help farmers who are about to hit hard times. So instead of shaking our fists at “Washington overreach,” maybe we should stop clutching our pearls, get off the fainting couch, and allow grown-ups to make their own choices.

  • For the better part of a century, the state had no moral qualms about banking off a product that we knew killed people by the millions. (Heck, the city I live in wouldn’t exist without it.) So maybe we shouldn’t fret so much about a product that is, by orders of magnitude, less lethal and addictive.


1. Biden’s Great Society

Ahead of Biden’s address to the nation, the White House unveiled a $1.8 trillion education and safety-net plan that Republicans are sure to love as much as the $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan they are trying to deep-six.

  • “The White House says its proposal would provide every American with two years of tuition-free community college; prekindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds; and paid family and medical leave for American workers. Among its sweeping agenda items, the plan also calls for devoting hundreds of billions of dollars to fighting child poverty and ensuring affordable child care nationwide.”

  • “To pay for these initiatives, White House officials are also proposing $1.5 trillion in tax hikes aimed primarily at increasing the amount paid by wealthy Americans and investors. The White House aims to raise money through a sizable increase in enforcement by the Internal Revenue Service, as well as approximately doubling the capital gains tax rate for those earning more than $1 million per year—a measure that would apply to a small fraction of Americans but is likely to face resistance on Capitol Hill.”

  • Biden also wants to permanently expand ACA subsidies, which have been expanded through 2022 as part of the American Relief Plan passed in March.

Tax the ultrawealthy—who have seen their share of taxes slashed over a generation—to help lower-income Americans whose standard of living has stagnated or declined during that same timeframe.

  • There’s a catch: “Both the pre-K and community college programs depend on a federal-state partnership for implementation, and states could decide whether to participate. After the Affordable Care Act was passed, many GOP-controlled states declined to expand Medicaid programs, even with a generous federal contribution.” (WaPo)

  • Another catch: Infrastructure will likely require a reconciliation bill to pass. That means Dems would have to wait until later this year for another opportunity to pass a reconciliation bill that includes this proposal, which will get next to zero Republican support.

  • The alternative is to try to pass provisions piecemeal.


  • The feds executed a search warrant on Rudy Giuliani’s apartment related to his dealings with Ukraine. Something something Deep State, probably. (NYT)

2. Judge Won’t Release Brown Body-Cam Footage

This will end well.

A Superior Court judge denied a media request to release the body-cam footage of Andrew Brown Jr. death, bowing to the request of the Pasquotank County district attorney, who wants it shielded from public view until the trial—and, beyond the small snippet already played for them, from the family for another 30 days.

  • District Attorney Andrew Womble said “the release would hinder a fair trial, risk the safety of the deputies, and affect active investigations.”

  • If there’s no trial—judging by his presentation to the judge, he doesn’t want there to be one—Womble says he’ll play the footage at a press conference.

  • A week later, we finally have a purported justification for why the still-nameless deputies shot Brown in the back of the head: He hit them with his car.

  • The county attorney lobbied to release the footage. And for good reason: The longer it stays hidden, the more this smells like a cover-up—which means more protests that have the potential to become more than protests.

Here’s what I don’t understand: If I were one of those deputies, and the footage actually showed Brown hitting me or my fellow deputies with his car in a manner that threatened our lives before we opened fire, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to keep the exonerating evidence under wraps for months on end.

  • Remember the teenage girl who was shot in Ohio the day Derek Chauvin was convicted? The only thing that put out that fire was body-cam footage showing that she had a knife and was threatening another person when she was killed.

3. Seditionist Ted Budd Runs for Senate

U.S. Rep Ted Budd, a Davie County gun-shop owner who voted to overturn the results of the presidential election on Jan. 6 based on nothing more than gaslighting, announced that he’ll seek the Republican nomination for Richard Burr’s Senate seat. In doing so, he made sure to let us all know he was proud to be the race’s Trump clown:

  • “His launch video includes a monster truck running over cars labeled the ‘liberal agenda.’ It also includes a clip of former President Donald Trump touting Budd at two rallies. He includes mentions of Dr. Seuss and defunding the police, and he says the U.S. Senate is the last line of defense against turning America into a ‘woke Socialist wasteland.’” (N&O)

  • He’s backed by the right-wing Club for Growth PAC.

4. Deadly, Pervasive Pollutant Disproportionately Affects Communities of Color

This is disturbing, if not surprising. Fine-particulate matter—think smoot—“disproportionately affects Americans of color, regardless of their location or income level,” according to a new study in Science Advances.

  • “The particles studied have diameters of no more than 2.5 micrometers— one-thirtieth the width of a human hair—and can become embedded in the lungs. Known as Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5, they account for between 85,000 and 200,000 premature U.S. deaths each year.”

  • “Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans face a higher level of exposure than average to PM 2.5 from industry, light-duty vehicles, diesel-powered heavy trucks, and construction, while Black Americans are exposed to greater-than-average concentrations from all categories in the Environmental Protection Agency National Emissions Inventory. White Americans have slightly higher-than-average exposure from agriculture and coal-fired power plants, the analysis found, because of where both are located.” (WaPo)