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FDA moves to ban menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars

The administration says the ban could reduce smoking-related deaths, particularly among Black Americans.

The Food and Drug Administration laid out a plan Thursday to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, a move the agency says will reduce disease and deaths by taking products that have long-targeted young people and people of color off the market.

Menthol is an additive whose minty flavor not only disguises the harsh effect of smoking on one’s lungs, but facilitates more nicotine intake that makes it harder to quit. Public health officials have long voiced concern about its high usage among children, teenagers and Black communities.

The FDA estimates that, if menthol cigarettes are no longer sold in the U.S., rates of smoking would go down 15% within 40 years and up to 654,000 smoking-related deaths could be avoided over the next four decades, more than one-third of those preventable deaths being among Black people.

For about 85% of Black smokers, menthols are their cigarette of choice. Though all other flavors of cigarettes were banned in 2009 through the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the FDA has struggled over the past decade to overcome lobbying from tobacco companies, garner support on the Hill and get menthol off the market.

The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and Action on Smoking and Health sued the agency back in 2020 for not acting quickly to ban menthol cigarettes. Even so, when the Biden administration announced the goal of banning menthol cigarettes last year, some expressed concern that such a move could criminalize Black people and people of color for smoking.

FDA officials underscored Thursday that the agency plans only to target manufacturers and retailers. Consumers who may possess or continue to use flavored cigarettes or cigars will not be prosecuted.

“The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement Thursday. “Additionally, the proposed rules represent an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.” 

Along with prohibiting the sale of flavored cigars, which the FDA says are growing in popularity among young people, the proposal still has some ways to go until it becomes law. The FDA will be seeking public comment over the next two months as it considers final implementation of the ban.

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If enforced, the ban would deal a blow to big tobacco companies that have turned in recent years to e-cigarettes, menthol and flavored products to entice consumers. But some organizations, including the American Petroleum and Convenience Store Association, worry the ban would also affect small businesses and warn that sales of flavored products would continue off the market.

“California small retailers, grocers, and gas stations face historic challenges, and this unprecedented decision would overwhelm many of these local businesses. Yet, the impact will extend beyond this industry, as an active underground market will quickly fill their place within our communities, bringing further criminal activity along with them. With so many pressing issues, the current administration clearly lacks the resources to properly prepare for this reality, and we urge President Biden and the FDA to seek proven alternatives to assist those that wish to quit,” the association said in a statement.

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