A bureaucratic obstacle towards achieving Black health equity

Girl vaping on a city street.
Photo via GettyImages

A recent study from the Center for Black Equity shines a new light on the power of vaping nicotine as a harm reduction and smoking cessation tool, especially for Black and LGBTQ+ populations that suffer death and disease from cigarettes at disproportionately high rates. As I recently argued, the harm reduction benefits of broad access to nicotine e-cigarettes are critical to advancing positive health equity outcomes for these communities I’ve long served, many of whom remain cigarette smokers looking for an alternative — a way out of the prison of cigarettes.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., and its principal victims are marginalized populations. According to the CDC, “about the same percent of African-American adults and White adults smoke,” but “African-American people are more likely to die from smoking-related diseases” even though they smoke “fewer cigarettes per day.”

But as the Center for Black Equity points out, vaping kills zero.

We need to pursue every option available to us when it comes to harm reduction and smoking cessation for Black Americans, and e-cigarettes, including flavored e-cigarettes, are that alternative. At the end of the day, more vaping means less smoking and less smoking in Black communities will mean less cancer for those most at risk.

I am proud of the work the Biden Administration has done to tackle health equity, especially in Black communities across the country. But like most policies addressing health equity issues, more work is needed – and needed fast.

When I served as the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, we routinely worked to ensure the accountability of government agencies. Right now, the discussion surrounding U.S. vaping policy is controlled by the Center for Tobacco Products (CTP) — a little known office which sits within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That office is standing in the way of making flavored e-cigarettes — and for that matter virtually all e-cigarettes – broadly accessible to those most at risk communities. That same office has recently guaranteed the future stranglehold of cigarettes on at risk communities by authorizing 892 new brands of cigarettes in recent years to add to the already flush marketplace of these deadly products.

It’s time to hold the CTP accountable.

Under the leadership of Director Brian King, the CTP has continued systematically rejecting all e-cigarettes and has failed to authorize a single less harmful vaping product. This approach makes absolutely no sense, as the Biden Administration and the President’s Cancer Moonshot Initiative have actively stated that they want to support everyone looking to quit smoking, which realistically can only be done quickly if smokers, particularly those in marginalized communities, are given access to less harmful e-cigarettes.

As part of these goals, the White House announced that marginalized communities would also receive devoted funding to support culturally sensitive smoking cessation tools to help adults looking to quit smoking, especially for those Black communities disproportionately affected by menthol cigarette use. What CTP hasn’t told the White House is that, once banned, these smokers won’t have any of these tools — less harmful menthol or other flavored e-cigarettes — to turn to which means they’ll continue smoking the hundreds of new cigarettes that CTP rushed to market or expose themselves to what is sure to be a huge menthol cigarette black market.

If the CTP actually wants to help and not hinder the Biden Administration’s health equity goals and Cancer Moonshot goals, it needs to follow the latest science and data which proves that e-cigarettes are an effective way not only to help Black Americans reduce the harms caused by cigarettes, but also quit their own smoking habit.

More Black American lives are on the line if the CTP fails to act. And Black voters can be a driving force in the Democratic primary for the 2024 election. It would be a shame to see the CTP prevent President Biden from making good on the health equity goals he promised in his campaign and throughout his tenure as president.

There is time to right the ship, but the CTP’s leadership needs to hear these calls, rethink their ban-only agenda, start educating truthfully about e-cigarettes, and authorize a diverse range of e-cigarettes as critical tools in the toolbox to save Black American lives. It’s my hope Brian King and the CTP do so before more damage is done – or more lives are needlessly lost to smoking.

Edolphus “Ed” Towns Jr. is a former Democratic Congressman who represented New York’s 10th and 11th Congressional Districts. He also served as the Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.