FDA Plans to Issue a Ban on Menthol in Cigarettes, Cigars

(Washington D.C.) — The U.S. government on Thursday will lay out its long-awaited plan to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, which have taken a disproportionate toll on Black smokers and other minorities.

Robert Califf (Food and Drug Administration Commissioner) previewed the announcement at congressional testimony. He said that it would decrease disease and mortality by helping existing smokers quit and preventing younger people starting.

Menthol makes up more than one third of the cigarettes that are sold in the United States. The mint flavor is highly favored by young Black smokers.

FDA attempted to remove menthol several times but ran into resistance from Big Tobacco, congressional members and other political parties under the Democratic and Republican administrations.

The agency has been under legal pressure to issue a decision after anti-smoking and civil rights groups sued the FDA for “unreasonably” delaying action on earlier requests to ban menthol. Menthol’s cooling effect has been shown to mask the throat harshness of smoking, making it easier to start and harder to quit smoking.

FDA will also ban menthol as well as many other overly sweet or fruity flavours from small cigars. This is especially important for Black teens.

The agency’s proposals on both cigarettes and cigars will only be initial drafts. FDA welcomes comments prior to issuing final rules. This could lead to years of litigation from the tobacco industry.

Menthol, the only flavor allowed in cigarette flavored cigarettes under the FDA’s 2009 authority to regulate tobacco products (an exemption that industry lobbyists negotiated), was not banned by the FDA. But, it did direct the FDA to continue to consider a ban.

The Biden administration promised to attempt to ban menthol by April. This was in response to African American organizations that claim menthol leads to lower quit rates, and more deaths among Blacks. Menthols have been used by over 85% Black smokers.

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“Black folks die disproportionately of heart disease, lung cancer and stroke,” said Phillip Gardiner of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. “Menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars are the main vectors of those diseases in the Black and brown communities, and have been for a long time.”

In 2020, Gardiner’s group and several others sued to compel the FDA to make a decision on a ban.

While the FDA has made numerous efforts to get rid of menthol, both under the Obama administration and Trump administration, they have never released a detailed roadmap.

“This is the first time there’s been support from an administration,” said Mitch Zeller, who recently retired after nine years leading FDA’s tobacco center. “If these rules are finalized they become the law of the land and it becomes illegal for menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars to be sold.”

In recent weeks, dozens of interest groups — for and against the ban — met with Biden administration officials to try and influence the proposed rule, which would wipe out billions in tobacco sales.

Over the decades, tobacco corporations have focused on marketing menthol cigarettes in Black communities and sponsoring local events and festivals. Industry documents released via litigation show companies viewed menthol cigarettes as a good “starter product” because they were more palatable to teens.

Menthol’s elimination would be a huge blow to tobacco companies, including Marlboro-maker Altria and Reynolds American, which sells the leading menthol brands, Newport and Kool. As the smoking rate has been declining, many tobacco companies are looking into other products such as electronic cigarettes and pouches. But they still make up a very small portion of industry sales.

The American smokers make up more than 12 percent of the population. This is comparable to Black and White populations.

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