Lawmakers in the House passed a bill Friday to impose sweeping restrictions on flavored vaping and tobacco products.
The legislation, which would ban flavored tobacco products, including menthol-flavored vaping products and cigarettes, passed with a vote of 213-195.
The move comes after the White House announced a ban on most flavored vaping products last month. In a reversal from President Donald Trump's earlier position, the ban left menthol flavored products intact and permitted tank-based products to be available in vape shops in every flavor.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar described the plan as striking a balance, but the administration's decision against an even stricter ban faced criticism from congressional Democrats.
'A so-called flavor ban that exempts menthol and vape shops is no ban at all,' New Jersey Democrat Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. said in a statement at the time. 'Unfortunately, the Trump administration caved to industry lobbying pressure and decided to prioritize politics over people's health.'
The vote on Friday was seen as House Democrats' answer to the administration's approach. It is not expected to pass in the Republican-held Senate. Most House Republicans voted against the bill, with members arguing during floor debate Friday that while the youth vaping epidemic is alarming and worth addressing, policymakers shouldn't get to choose which products adult users can buy.
Five Republicans — Reps. Vern Buchanan of Florida, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Pete King of New York, Chris Smith of New Jersey and Fred Upton of Michigan — voted for the bill.
Some Democratic members raised concerns ahead of the vote that in targeting menthol, the bill could disproportionately harm black and rural communities. Seventeen Democrats voted against the bill, including several Congressional Black Caucus members, G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, Donald McEachin of Virginia, Hank Johnson of Georgia, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Al Lawson of Florida, Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Yvette Clarke of New York.
Members from a number of conservative districts, including Reps. Anthony Brindisi of New York, Jared Golden of Maine, Ben McAdams of Utah, Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, also opposed the bill.
'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,' Clarke wrote in an op-ed in The Hill on Thursday.
'A ban that targets menthol products but ignores other premium tobacco products unduly burdens the black community. This asymmetrical ban feels more like a targeted attack than a value-neutral health care policy decision,' she said. 'In effect, white adult smokers would see little difference in their lives after this ban while black smokers could face even more sweeping harassment from law enforcement if the hint of menthol smoke can justify a stop.'
Democratic leaders pushed back on the idea that the legislation would disproportionately punish the black community, making the case that blocking menthol products would help black smokers quit smoking.
Rep. Robin Kelly, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust, urged her colleagues to support the bill.
'This critical legislation will protect young people, especially young people of color, from a lifetime of nicotine addiction. Simply put, prohibiting menthol and other flavored tobacco products will save lives — especially black lives,' she said on the House floor.
She added that opposition to the measure on account of the notion that it would disproportionately harm the black community 'only perpetuates a cycle in which many members of the African American community are already trapped.'