[Office of Management and Budget]

Watchdog group sues Biden admin for docs related to menthol cigarette crackdown

A government watchdog group is suing the Biden administration over documents it has sought via information request related to proposed regulations targeting menthol cigarettes.

Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), alleging that the agency has violated its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Protect the Public’s Trust submitted four FOIA requests for documents pertaining to the proposed federal menthol cigarette ban with HHS and subagency the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) late last year, all of which have gone unfulfilled.

PPT describes itself as nonpartisan, a ‘project dedicated to ensuring there is only one standard – one set of rules that our leaders must live by no matter what party affiliation or ideological bent,’ according to its website. It’s headed by Michael Chamberlain, a former communications official at the Department of Education in the Trump administration.

‘The Biden administration and FDA probably thought they would be greeted as conquering heroes when they announced the menthol ban,’ Chamberlain said in a statement. ‘But the science and, as they soon found out, the politics appear to be a lot more complicated than that.’

‘The rule is highly controversial, and it’s important for the American public to understand the factors driving the administration’s actions here,’ he added. ‘But, despite our best efforts and Mr. Biden’s claim of running the most transparent administration in history, the agencies won’t produce records. That seems to indicate there’s something they don’t want the public to know.’

PPT filed its FOIA requests with HHS and FDA in December. The requests asked for communications between several senior officials related to the menthol ban.

However, in the more than 90 days since the four requests, HHS has not produced responsive documents and has not communicated the scope of the documents it intends to produce or withhold, according to PPT. As such, the group argues that HHS has not met its statutory obligations to provide the requested records for the FOIA requests.

‘Through HHS’ failure to either to make a determination within the time period required by law, PPT has constructively exhausted its administrative remedies and seeks immediate judicial review,’ the lawsuit states.

HHS, which was listed as the sole defendant in the lawsuit, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the White House has repeatedly missed target dates for finalizing the proposed menthol cigarette regulations, the latest of which was this month, and it remains unclear when they will be finalized. The regulations, which would broadly ban menthol cigarette sales nationwide, were first proposed by the FDA two years ago and sent to the White House for final approval months ago.

The FDA said the proposal would reduce disease and even death from tobacco product use by reducing youth experimentation and addiction, while increasing the number of smokers that might quit. Tobacco smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death nationwide, according to the agency.

‘The FDA remains committed to issuing the tobacco product standards for menthol in cigarettes and characterizing flavors in cigars as expeditiously as possible; these rules have been submitted to the [Office of Management and Budget] for review, which is the final step in the rulemaking process,’ an FDA spokesperson recently told Fox News Digital. ‘As we’ve made clear, these product standards remain at the top of our priorities.’

At the same time, the proposed crackdown on menthol cigarettes has sparked a contentious debate between health advocates, who favor the regulations, and civil liberties and business groups, which oppose the regulations.

Groups representing minorities, like the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement and the nonprofit National Action Network – the latter of which was founded by civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton – argue that banning menthol cigarettes while not restricting non-menthol cigarettes ‘puts a microscope on minority communities.’ They say it could increase the probability of negative interactions between police and minorities.

The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement, National Action Network, National Newspaper Publishers Association and civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump met with HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf and White House domestic policy adviser Neera Tanden to discuss the proposal in November, according to White House records.

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