The US Food and Drug Administration is proposing rules to end menthol flavoring in cigarettes, which are most popular among Black smokers.

The Biden administration is taking the initiative to end menthol’s appeal to Black and young smokers.

The US Food and Drug Administration last week announced a proposal to end menthol flavoring in cigarettes to reduce youth smoking and targeting Black consumers, who are the largest base of their use. Combined with the elimination of flavoring in cigars, government officials believe the initiative will maximize public health impacts by not allowing manufacturers to move people to similar products and reduce youth initiation and addiction.

The proposal could take as long as two years to become official.

Prohibition advocates applaud the proposal as a step toward eliminating health disparities driven by decades-long practices to hook Black, LGBTQ and low-income people on smoking. Menthol cigarettes are a staple in the Black community, where nearly 85% of smokers prefer to light up with them – more than twice the rate for whites. Anti-smoking and health advocates attribute that rate to aggressive marketing to Black consumers since the 1960s.

“With tobacco use being the number one cause of preventable death and responsible for one-third of all cancer deaths,” Lisa Lacasse, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said in a statement, “FDA’s proposed rules are a critical next step to combat Big Tobacco’s efforts to lure new customers into a lifetime of addiction with menthol flavoring and candy flavored cigars and reduce suffering and death from tobacco-related diseases. “

Tobacco manufacturers, who have long opposed menthol bans, sold 203.7 billion cigarettes in the United States in 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s annual Cigarette Report, the first increase in two decades but still far lower than in the 1980s when sales exceeded 600 billion cigarettes annually. Menthol smokes account for 36% of the cigarette market and half of all sales at Reynolds American, which manufactures Newport, the No. 1 menthol brand.

“The scientific evidence shows no difference in the health risks associated with menthol cigarettes compared to non-menthol cigarettes, nor does it support that menthol cigarettes adversely affect initiation, dependence or cessation,” Kingsley Wheaton, chief marketing officer of British American Tobacco, which owns Reynolds American, said in a statement. “As a result, we do not believe the published science supports regulating menthol cigarettes differently from non-menthol cigarettes.”

Banning menthol, health advocates argue, would help reduce tobacco initiation among young people and jump-start cessation among adults, saving lives from tobacco related disease like cancer. Recent research from the American Cancer Society examined the impact on the sale of cigarettes of a Massachusetts law that restricted the sale of all flavored tobacco products in the state and found that this action decreased the sale of menthol cigarettes, contributing to a reduction in overall cigarette sales.

“FDA’s long-awaited action to eliminate menthol flavoring in cigarettes ends the shocking, decades-long deference to the tobacco industry, which has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to profit from products that result in death,” Lacasse said.

As a result of targeted marketing, menthol use is disproportionately higher among Black smokers at 83.1% compared to 48% of Hispanics who smoke, 41.5% of Asians and 31.6% of whites who light up.

Menthol is also the preferred flavor among young smokers, at roughly half of teens who smoke reporting menthol cigarette use. Additionally, cigars are the second most popular tobacco product used by young people and the most popular tobacco product among Black youth.

“FDA’s actions today send a clear message that Big Tobacco’s strategy to profit off addicting Black Americans will no longer be tolerated” Lacasse said. “Currently, lung cancer deaths rates in Black males are 15% higher than those of white males in the US. If we’re going to address these very real health disparities, we must take strong action to end the industry’s targeting of Black communities. “

Wheaton insists his company is dedicated to reducing harm caused by tobacco and will work with FDA but draws the line at outlawing menthol.

“We will continue to work with FDA to support access and choice for adult consumers,” he said. “We strongly believe that there are more effective routes to deliver Tobacco Harm Reduction than banning menthol in cigarettes. Evidence from other markets, including Canada and the EU where similar bans have been imposed, demonstrates little impact on overall cigarette consumption. “

Lacasse counters that given the higher incidences of smoking-related cancers and respiratory disease among Black Americans, speedy prohibition coupled with cessation programs are needed.

“Given the public health impact these rules could have, the risk of delayed action is far too great,” she said Lacasse. “We urge the FDA to swiftly finalize these proposed rules.”


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