FDA plans to ban menthol cigarettes, citing minority impact

Menthol cigarettes are seen for sale on a shelf at a Quick Stop store on March 30, 2010 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)
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Tiffany Kary Bloomberg News (TNS)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has moved to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes, citing their disproportionate effect on the health of African Americans.

The FDA announced Thursday that it’s “working toward issuing proposed product standards within the next year to ban menthol” as a flavor in cigarettes. It also plans to ban all flavors, including menthol, in cigars. The FDA said it is “moving expeditiously” and that its next step will be to publish proposed rules in the Federal Register, allowing an opportunity for public comment.

“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,” Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said in the statement. She said it would address health disparities in communities of color and in low-income populations.

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The move comes after more than a decade of inaction. Congress first recommended in 2009 that the agency decide what to do about menthol flavoring in cigarettes, which gives them a minty taste and soothes the throat but can make smoking more addictive, anti-tobacco groups say.

The decision drew pushback from cigarette maker Altria Group Inc., which was in the middle of its quarterly earnings conference call when the news was announced. Chief Executive Officer Billy Gifford said the impact on the industry is unclear at this stage, but he was skeptical about whether a menthol ban would have the desired effect on public health.

“We don’t think prohibition works,” and it “is fraught with unintended consequences,” he said on the call. The company, which makes and sells Marlboros in the U.S., has cautioned that if there aren’t enough satisfying alternatives for smokers to switch to, they will keep smoking regular cigarettes or move to black market products.

Altria shares initially declined on the news, before paring most of the losses. Imperial Brands Plc, which makes Kool cigarettes, and British American Tobacco Plc, which owns RJ Reynolds, also fell.

The FDA in 2009 created a committee to review scientific research on menthol and make a recommendation. In 2011, the agency concluded that removing menthol tobacco products would help public health. Yet the agency never issued a final rule, spurring the lawsuit from the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council.

“We brought our lawsuit to compel the agency’s determination, and more importantly, to protect the public health. We’re hopeful today that FDA’s announcement is a significant step in the right direction,” said Christopher Leung, a lawyer with Pollock Cohen LLP who brought the lawsuit against the FDA.

Banning menthol cigarettes may improve overall public health, given smoking’s correlation to problems like cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic lung disease and Covid-19. Anti-tobacco groups have said a ban would especially help young people, who are more likely to start smoking because of menthols.

A ban also could particularly benefit the health of African Americans of all ages. Studies have shown that tobacco companies for decades have used targeted ad campaigns and lower prices to market menthols to Black people. About 85% of Black smokers in the U.S. favor menthols, by some estimates.

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Michael R. Bloomberg has campaigned and given money in support of a ban on flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco. He is the majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
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