FDA Moves to Ban Menthol Cigarettes and Flavored Cigars

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Menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products at a store in San Francisco in 2018. U.S. health regulators announced a new effort Thursday to ban menthol cigarettes.  (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Updated April 29, 2021 at 4:52 PM ET

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it is moving to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, based on the evidence of the addictiveness and harm of the products. Tobacco companies have long targeted African Americans with advertising for menthol cigarettes.

"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 Dr. Janet Woodcock said in a statement Thursday.

"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," Woodcock added.

A potential ban by the FDA would only apply to manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers and retailers.

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The agency says it will focus on keeping the products off the market, as opposed to targeting individual use: "The FDA cannot and will not enforce against individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes or any tobacco product."

The move follows previous actions that banned other flavored cigarettes in 2009. While the FDA made a similar announcement to prohibit menthol cigarettes in 2018 during the Trump administration, a ban did not come to pass.

White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday that the proposed ban "is a public health decision that will help curb addiction and save lives."

"If implemented, these rules affect only commercial activity," she emphasized, noting the FDA does not regulate tobacco possession.

The FDA said that "menthol masks 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."

African American adults have the highest percentage of menthol cigarette use compared with other racial and ethnic groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The FDA said about 18.6 million people in the U.S. currently smoke menthol cigarettes, but their use is uneven: Almost 85% of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, compared to 30% of white smokers.

The NAACP welcomed the FDA's announcement.

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"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," NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said in a statement.

"The ban by the FDA is long overdue to protect the health of African Americans and to reduce the deleterious impact of menthol smoking and tobacco use overall on America's health," he said.

But tobacco giant Altria, parent company of Philip Morris USA, argued that a ban won't work.

"We share the common goal of moving adult smokers from cigarettes to potentially less harmful alternatives, but prohibition does not work," Altria spokesman George Parman said in a statement to NPR. "A far better approach is to support the establishment of a marketplace of FDA-authorized non-combustible alternatives that are attractive to adult smokers."

Altria said it will review the FDA's announcement and engage in the rule-making process "with a focus on the science and evidence."

But the American Medical Association said the evidence is clear on the harmful impacts of menthols and called the FDA's decision long overdue. It pointed to an FDA finding that if menthol cigarettes had been removed from the marketplace in 2010, "by 2020, roughly 17,000 premature deaths would have been avoided and about 2.3 million people would not have started smoking."

The goal of the ban is to reduce tobacco addiction and curb deaths, the FDA said. It cited a study suggesting 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."

The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council has long pushed to ban menthol cigarettes.

"This is a major step forward in Saving Black Lives; however, this is not the end of this fight, only the next stage," Phillip Gardiner, the council's co-chair, said in a statement. "We know that this rule making process could take years and we know that the tobacco industry will continue to do everything in their power to derail any attempt to remove their deadly products from the market."

In advance of the announcement, California Gov. Gavin Newsom urged the federal government in a news release Wednesday “to follow California’s leadership to protect public health and advance racial equity by moving to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes.”

“For decades, Big Tobacco has targeted and profited from Black communities with marketing for minty menthol cigarettes and as a result, smoking-related illnesses are the number one cause of death among Black Americans,” Newsom said.

Newsom cited Senate Bill 793, a law he signed last year that eliminated flavored e-cigarettes and menthol tobacco products “that lure our kids.”

The FDA will publish the proposed rule in the Federal Register, allow time for public comment and then make any revisions before publishing the final rule.

The FDA's announcement is the culmination of years of effort and wait by public health groups – and the work isn't over yet, said Joanna Cohen, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

If the FDA publishes a final rule, Cohen said, "the tobacco companies will most likely sue," as they have with other proposed regulations on tobacco products.

Cohen noted that the FDA's announcement does not include e-cigarette cartridges. The FDA banned most flavored cartridges last year (except tobacco and menthol flavors) – which Cohen says spurred vapers to instead simply buy devices that preload the flavors.

In that way, she said, tobacco control is like a balloon.

"If you squeeze in one area, the balloon — the tobacco industry — is just going to expand into some other area," Cohen said. "So you have to really be thoughtful and comprehensive whenever you do one of these things, because if you're not careful, it moves the problem."

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