First student loans, now menthol cigarettes: Is Biden *trying* to antagonize working-class voters?

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

All that’s left for the White House to do is raise taxes on people making $50K or less. Let’s see if they can get the entirety of the population that didn’t go to college voting Republican this year.

In fairness to them, banning menthol cigarettes has been in the works for a decade and has included Republican buy-in. The ban was pushed briefly by Trump’s administration back when Scott Gottlieb was head of the FDA, but Gottlieb’s departure led to the matter being dropped. The feds have had their eye on menthols because they make smoking “easier” by generating a cooling feeling in the throat that reduces the irritation from smoke. That makes them appealing to teens and young adults who are experimenting with the habit. Evidence also suggests that menthols are harder to quit. Based off Canadian data, one estimate claims that a menthol ban would result in 1.3 million fewer smokers in the U.S.

So far, so good. What makes this tricky from a political perspective is that there are distinct demographic differences in who smokes menthols thanks to years of marketing to minority communities:

Numbers from the Times claim the racial gap is even wider, with 85 percent of African-American smokers preferring menthols versus 29 percent of whites. Per the WSJ, 51 percent of Hispanic smokers also prefer menthols.

Question, then: Is now the most opportune moment for the Biden White House to pick a for-your-own-good fight with blacks and Latinos, two largely working-class demographics? Trump made gains with both groups in 2020 thanks to the left’s “defund the police” message. Democrats should be eager to atone and to heal that cultural rift. So here they are, telling the two groups that … they’re about to take their favorite cigarettes away.

Knowing full well, by the way, that the sort of young adults who prefer menthols are already drifting away from Biden.

Worse, the White House is pushing this ban at the very moment it’s considering a fantastically exorbitant giveaway to college graduates in the form of student debt forgiveness. Imagine being young, black or Latino, and in the labor force instead of at college and being told that not only are you on the hook for bailing out college grads, you’re not going to be able to smoke your favorite brands soon either. How excited are you to turn out for Democrats this fall?

Even if you’re not a member of those groups, how excited are you to see Team Biden spending time on menthol cigarettes at a moment of frightening stagflation and a rising risk of world war in Ukraine?

Charles Cooke ably summarizes the reaction to come from most of the U.S. electorate if Democrats follow through on their student loan amnesty:

In and of itself, this is grotesque. But it becomes even worse when one acknowledges that, relative to pretty much everyone else in America, the people asking for this favor are in an excellent position. The unemployment rate for college graduates is currently two percent. Thanks to Covid-19, nobody with federally held student loans has had to pay anything toward their debt for two years. Along with almost everyone else in America, they were sent a few rounds of large checks during 2020 and 2021. And that high inflation rate that is screwing the poor? Slowly, but surely, it is eating away at college graduates’ debts, allowing them to pay loans that were already below the market interest rate with dollars that are now worth less than they were when the debt was contracted. That the president of the United States is seriously considering making our dire fiscal situation even worse in order to help those people is just beyond surreal.

The party of the educated class takes care of its own. They even get to smoke the cigarettes they like best.

Just to make this decision even more painful and squeamish for Biden, some black leaders have warned that banning menthols will have unintended consequences. Al Sharpton — who’s received donations from R.J. Reynolds for years, do note — argues that taking menthols off the market will “lead Black smokers to tamper with cigarettes or use unregulated herbal menthol varieties, which would ‘promote criminal activity.’” Remember that Eric Garner died in the course of the NYPD arresting him for selling “loosies,” a practice that may become more common once a black market for menthols arises. So on top of everything else, Biden has a potential “racial justice” issue here too.

I don’t know what he’s thinking inviting this sort of controversy among black and Hispanic voters when he’s already desperate to hold onto them. The most charitable explanation is that this matter is out of his hands to some degree for procedural reasons: “When President Biden took office in 2021, his team had to decide quickly whether or not it would support a menthol-cigarette ban because the FDA faced a court deadline to declare its intentions.” Maybe it was now or never on the ban. To the likely chagrin of Democratic incumbents, Biden chose “now.”

Here’s something newsworthy from this morning’s short press conference. He may forgive some student debt, he says, but not as much as the left is demanding. Which is likely to leave him in the familiar position of having pissed off both sides.