The Food and Drug Administration announced it will move to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars from the market, hoping the decision will help reduce addiction and youth smoking as well as close health disparity gaps between black and white Americans.
“Banning menthol — the last allowable flavor — in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock in a statement on the decision issued Thursday.
Woodcock added, “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.”
The FDA’s decision was forced by a 2020 lawsuit from Action on Smoking & Health, African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and the American Medical Association. In the suit, the groups claimed the FDA was failing to regulate menthol cigarettes despite urging from Congress in 2009 when the agency banned other cigarette flavors, including candy, coffee and fruit.
Harold Wimmer, the president and CEO of the American Lung Association (ALA) applauded the decision. “Removing menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars has the potential to save millions of lives. Ending the sale of these products will stop kids from being lured by these flavors and becoming addicted, and also encourage tobacco users to quit, especially black Americans,” he said in a statement.
Menthol flavored e-cigarettes are excluded from the ban, although Wimmer encouraged the FDA to move to ban them as well. “The American Lung Association continues to urge swift FDA action to remove all flavored tobacco products from the marketplace, including all mint and menthol e-cigarettes,” he said.
The NAACP also cheered the decision. In a statement to NPR, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said, “For decades, data have shown that the tobacco industry has successfully and intentionally marketed mentholated cigarettes to African Americans and particularly African American women as ‘replacement smokers;’ that menthol smokers have a harder time quitting smoking; and that tobacco use is a major contributor to heart disease, cancer, and stroke — three leading causes of death among African Americans.”
Still the FDA will likely receive pushback from tobacco companies, potentially in court, so the process of removing menthol-flavored cigarettes and cigars from the market could be years from implementation.
In statements to the AP, tobacco companies that manufacture menthol products expressed their concerns with the decision. An Altria spokesperson said a ban “criminalizing menthol” would have “serious unintended consequences,” and a Reynolds American spokesperson said, “Published science does not support regulating menthol cigarettes differently from non-menthol.”
Past efforts to accomplish a ban have been thwarted by legal action from tobacco companies as well as inaction within the government. Under Obama, the FDA reached a similar conclusion that these products were dangerous, but the administration did not act. Under Trump, then-FDA commissioner Scott Gottleib tried to move the process forward, but the Trump administration stalled it.