Last Thursday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it is committing to advancing two tobacco product standards to significantly reduce disease and death from using combusted tobacco products, the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.
The FDA is working toward issuing proposed product standards within the next year to ban menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes and ban all characterizing flavors (including menthol) in cigars. They stated that the decision is based on clear science and evidence establishing the addictiveness and harm of these products and builds on important, previous actions that banned other flavored cigarettes in 2009.
“With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, M.D. “Armed with strong scientific evidence, and with full support from the administration, we believe these actions will launch us on a trajectory toward ending tobacco-related disease and death in the U.S.”
The agency stated that there is strong evidence that a menthol ban will help people quit. Studies show that menthol increases the appeal of tobacco and facilitates progression to regular smoking, particularly among youth and young adults. Menthol masks the unpleasant flavors and harshness of tobacco products, making them easier to start using. Tobacco products with menthol can also be more addictive and harder to quit by enhancing the effects of nicotine.
One study suggests that banning menthol cigarettes in the U.S. would lead an additional 923,000 smokers to quit, including 230,000 African-Americans in the first 13 to 17 months after a ban goes into effect. An earlier study projected that about 633,000 deaths would be averted, including about 237,000 deaths averted for African-Americans.
“For far too long, certain populations, including African-Americans, have been targeted, and disproportionately impacted by tobacco use. Despite the tremendous progress we’ve made in getting people to stop smoking over the past 55 years, that progress hasn’t been experienced by everyone equally,” said Mitch Zeller, J.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products.
Use of menthol cigarettes among smokers is not uniform: out of all Black smokers, nearly 85 percent smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to 30 percent of White smokers who smoke menthols.
The African American Tobacco Leadership Council (AATCLC) released the following statement:
“Today’s decision by the FDA to ban menthol cigarettes is a long-overdue step toward ending years of racialized predation upon African-Americans by the tobacco industry. This decision follows the lawsuit we filed against the agency last year and it signals the beginning of the end. We are encouraged but there is still much work ahead,” it states.
“For decades, the industry marketed menthols to our kids and communities with exploitative and discriminatory tactics. As we work to confront racism and injustice in all forms, banning menthol cigarettes is one part of the push toward racial justice, health equity, and protecting Black lives.”
If implemented, the FDA’s enforcement of any ban on menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars will only address manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers, and retailers. The FDA cannot and will not enforce against individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes or any tobacco product. The FDA will work to make sure that any unlawful tobacco products do not make their way onto the market.
The FDA will work with partners in other federal agencies to make sure the support is there for those who are trying to quit. Smokers interested in quitting today should visit smokefree.gov or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW to learn about cessation services available in their state.