The Biden administration moved Thursday to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, cheering anti-smoking groups who have long said the products harm minorities while sparking fears that Black smokers will flock to illicit markets and face unfair prosecution.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to kick-start the removal will help “our most marginalized communities” and accelerate the decrease in overall tobacco use.
“Tobacco-related death and disease must become a part of America’s past. These public health measures will save lives,” he said. “Banning menthol in cigarettes and flavors in cigars will decrease the appeal of these tobacco products and strengthen health equity. 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.”
R.J. Reynolds, whose Newport brand cigarettes would be affected by a ban, said published science does not support regulating menthol cigarettes differently from non-menthol ones.
“Reynolds will evaluate any proposed regulation and will participate in any consultation and the rule-making process by submitting robust, science-based evidence,” the company said. “The scientific evidence neither shows a difference in health risks between a menthol and a non-menthol cigarette, nor does it support that menthol cigarettes adversely affect initiation, dependence or cessation.”
ITG Brands, which makes Kool cigarettes, said the FDA proposal was “disappointing, but not unexpected.”
“We are hopeful that FDA will follow the law and prioritize sound policy and science over political pressure,” said the company, a segment of Imperial Brands.
Federal data show 14% of the U.S. population smoked cigarettes in 2019 and that it remains the leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death in the country.
Black and White populations have similar smoking rates, but data suggest Black smokers are less likely to quit — a phenomenon that is likely caused by less use of cessation programs, such as counseling or medication.
Some attribute the trend to targeted marketing of menthol cigarettes and their minty flavor, which makes it easier to handle tobacco’s taste.
The FDA’s action came as it faced a court-ordered, Thursday deadline to respond to a citizens’ petition from 2013 seeking a ban on tobacco products containing menthol. Regulators also faced pressure to act on small, flavored cigars that are increasingly popular with young people and are raising fears that a new generation will take up tobacco.
Advocacy groups praised the FDA’s moves, saying Big Tobacco targeted young people and Black communities by advertising the products to them for years. But they want the FDA to speed up the often years-long rulemaking process.
“While the FDA said it would issue proposed rules within the next year, we urge the FDA to expedite this time frame and move swiftly to propose, finalize and implement the necessary regulations to turn this decision into life-saving action,” said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network said 85% of Blacks who smoke use menthol cigarettes, compared to 46% of Hispanic smokers and 29% of White smokers. It said the ban, if enacted, would end “a decades-long deference to the tobacco industry.”
Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock cited a study that says a ban would force an additional 923,000 smokers to quit, including 230,000 Black smokers, in the first 13 to 17 months after the prohibition takes effect.
But critics said the move would force menthol smokers into the underground market, exposing them to criminal prosecution.
“The evidence clearly demonstrates that introducing prohibition will do nothing to reduce smoking rates, but will expose minorities to further over-policing, and the dangers this brings,” said Tim Andrews, director of consumer issues at Americans for Tax Reform. “While the majority of menthol smokers will switch to non-menthol tobacco, over 20% will continue to purchase on the black market, not only exposing them to persecution but funding sophisticated international criminal syndicates.”
The White House insisted the FDA would enforce the rules on only manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers and retailers.
“This is a public health decision that will help curb addiction and save lives,” Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. “If implemented, these rules only affect commercial activity. This rule would not make individual possession or use of menthol cigarettes a crime.”
Groups opposing the proposed ban said if the administration were serious about reducing smoking rates, it would embrace less harmful, non-combustible nicotine delivery systems like vaping as a way to wean people off.
The FDA said it is aware that some menthol smokers will need assistance in quitting the habit. They pledged to make sure “help is there” and published the 1-800-QUIT-NOW hotline to link them with state resources.