Federal regulators appear to be poised to enact a ban on menthol cigarettes this week, in advance of a court-ordered deadline for the agency to make a decision on the future of the products, which are blamed for causing new nicotine addictions among teens and prior non-smokers, especially among African-Americans.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decision has been years in the making, with many public advocacy groups urging the regulatory agency to take actions to protect Americans. However, an actual methol cigarette ban would likely not go into effect for years.
A citizen petition was filed in 2013, which called for a full ban of the menthol flavor in cigarettes. However, after the agency failed to act on the petition for years, lawsuits were filed by two groups, including the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and Action on Smoking and Health. In 2018, the FDA again considered a menthol ban, but again failed to act.
Now the FDA is facing a deadline to respond to a court order demanding a position. Many think the agency will announce the a ban as a result. However, if the agency bans menthol cigarettes, it will not remove the products from stores immediately, but begin a rule-making process that would lead to their eventual removal. The process could take several years.
Research estimates banning menthol would help more than 923,000 additional smokers quit, including 230,000 African American smokers. Other groups also have high menthol cigarette use rates, including LGBTQ communities and teens. Roughly half of teens who smoke use menthol cigarettes. A potential ban would help reduce the number of teens who would eventually become tobacco users, some research suggests.
Menthol cigarettes produce a cooling sensation in the throat, reducing the harsh taste of a cigarette. Research indicates menthol activates more nicotine receptors in the brain and keeps the nicotine in the body longer. Decades of data indicates the cooling flavor makes it much easier to start smoking to begin with and leads to increased health risks for African Americans.
Roughly 85% of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes and Black Americans are less likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer at an earlier, more treatable stage. Only about 29% of white smokers choose menthol cigarettes. More so, Black men have the highest lung cancer death rate in the country.
A similar ban was enacted in Canada in 2016, which has been credited with helping thousands of smokers quit. Health advocates hope a ban in the United States would lead to similar outcomes.
The FDA has refrained from a ban, largely due to the tens of millions of dollars spent by the tobacco industry to lobby the agency, according to many critics. Furthermore, the tobacco industry has spent more than 50 years marketing the products specifically to Black Americans.
A recent study in the Tobacco Control Journal indicated menthol cigarettes encouraged nearly 10 million Americans to start smoking, leading to nearly 400,000 premature deaths between 1980 and 2018.
The original deadline for the decision was January 29, but the parties involved agreed to an extension so the FDA could review more recent studies focusing on menthol cigarettes and their effect on the body.