In response to a federal lawsuit from several prominent public health groups, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a press announcement declaring a commitment to move forward with two tobacco product standards within the next year, including a proposal to ban menthol.
“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. 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,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, M.D.
In 2009, Congress gave the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco products, and simultaneously banned all cigarette flavors with the exception of menthol. While this proposed ban doesn’t require approval from Congress, it would impact more than a third of cigarette purchases in the U.S. A final decision, however, could take months or even years to go into effect given the extensive and lengthy rule-making process and accompanying public comment period.
Despite the likely benefits to public health, this ban is still considered to be controversial. Critics of the proposed ban are apprehensive because they anticipate the development of a clandestine underground market and the accompanying enforcement that would increase confrontations between Blacks and law enforcement officials. This is a valid concern, when research shows that Blacks are 3.23 times more likely to be killed by police than whites in the U.S.
One can look back to Eric Garner’s arrest in 2014 that ultimately caused his untimely death at the hands of police because he was allegedly selling “loosies” (single cigarettes from a pack) as proof that this fear is well-founded. In 2019, this case study was utilized to defeat a menthol ban in New York City.
According to the CDC, menthol is a chemical compound that can be found in nature in peppermint and some similar plants, and it is used in tobacco products to cause a cooling sensation when inhaling to make the smoke feel less harsh. Menthol cigarettes are considered to be a gateway to experimenting with smoking, especially for young people. “Seven out of 10 African American youth ages 12-17 who smoke use menthol cigarettes.” In addition, “a higher percentage of black adults who smoke started by using menthol cigarettes (93%) than white adults who smoke (44%).”
A report, Stopping Menthol, Saving Lives: Ending Big Tobacco’s Predatory Marketing to Black Communities, published this past February (2021) documents how the tobacco industry has been targeting Black communities for over 60 years. These predatory tactics have had an adverse impact on Black lives—“tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death among Black Americans.” In fact, researchers have found that neighborhoods with the largest concentration of stores that sell tobacco products and cigarettes have a high percentage of Black or impoverished residents.
Dr. Phillip Gardner, a co-chairman of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, said “COVID-19 exposed the discriminatory treatment that Black people have been facing for hundreds of years. It’s precisely at this time that we need strong public health measures.” The Biden administration has said they are committed to eliminating racial health disparities, and many Black lawmakers and health groups do support the proposed ban.