As anticipated, this week federal regulators announced a plan to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, citing the disastrous health effects the products are having on minorities in particular.
The FDA issued the long-anticipated announcement on April 29, indicating the agency’s intent to eliminate menthol-flavored, combustible tobacco products from the U.S. market. They also intend to ban all characterizing flavors, including menthol, in cigars.
Menthol is the last flavor still currently allowed in cigarettes. According to the FDA, the cooling sensation helps mask the harshness of tobacco, making it popular among younger individuals and prior non-smokers, increasing the risk they may develop a smoking addiction and making it harder to quit.
For decades, menthol-flavored cigarettes have been heavily marketed toward minorities, inflicting a massive health toll on those communities, according to the agency.
“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,” Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, M.D., said in the April 29 press release. “Together, these actions represent powerful, science-based approaches that will have an extraordinary public health impact. Armed with strong scientific evidence, and with full support from the Administration, we believe these actions will launch us on a trajectory toward ending tobacco-related disease and death in the U.S.”
FDA officials say there is strong evidence a menthol ban will help a large number of smokers quit, citing a new study released earlier this month by Canadian researchers, who determined a menthol ban in the U.S. would result in 923,000 smokers quitting in the first 13 to 17 months; including 230,000 African Americans. Other studies have indicated the ban would prevent 633,000 deaths, including 237,000 African American deaths.
A potential ban would also help reduce the number of teens who would eventually become tobacco users, some research suggests.
Since the 2009 Tobacco Control Act (TCA), menthol has been the only flavor not banned in conventional combustion cigarettes. However, that law charged the FDA with determining what should be done about menthol cigarette products.
Faced with that imperative, and a 2013 citizen’s petition which the agency legally has to act on, the FDA indicates it will release a detailed plan of how it will ban menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars. Even though the plan has not been released, the FDA announcement assured the public it will go after manufacturers and distributors to prevent them from making and selling menthol cigarettes, but will not pursue enforcement on individuals who possess them even after the ban.
Along with the ban, the FDA announced it will increase public access to resources to help smokers quit.
“Together, these actions represent powerful, science-based approaches that over time will help end the cycle of children becoming the next generation of smokers and eliminate long-perpetuated health disparities,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement issued on April 29. “We also recognize it is critical to ensure that routine smokers who seek to quit have broad and equitable access to all of the tools and resources they may need to succeed.”
According to the FDA, an estimated 18.6 million current smokers smoke menthol cigarettes, with 85% of all black smokers using menthol products; compared to 30% of white smokers. In addition, 74% of youth between the ages of 12 and 17 who admit to smoking cigars say they smoke them due to the flavors.
The FDA indicates it will publish the proposed rules in the Federal Register when they are ready for publication.
The agency urges those who are trying to quit smoking to visit smokefree.gov or to call 1-800-QUIT-NOW to find resources in their state to assist them.