The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday issued rules that will prohibit menthol-flavored cigarettes and any flavor other than tobacco in cigars.
The administration said the ban was necessary because the minty flavor of menthol ameliorates the harsh edge of tobacco and appeals to young people. There is also a heavy racial component to the debate, with government data showing 85% of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, compared to about 30% of white smokers.
“The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said. “Additionally, the proposed rules represent an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.”
Reducing smoking rates would also help President Biden meet his moonshot campaign to beat cancer, the White House said.
The FDA said it is acting within its authority and building on actions in 2009 to prohibit cigarettes with flavors besides menthol and tobacco.
Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, hailed the rules, saying tobacco companies targeted Black Americans in advertising for menthol cigarettes.
SEE ALSO: Moderna asks FDA to authorize COVID-19 vaccine for under 6
“By issuing proposed rules today to prohibit menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars, the FDA is taking historic and long-overdue action to protect our nation’s kids, advance health equity and save lives, especially among Black Americans and other populations that have been targeted by the tobacco industry and suffered enormous harm from the predatory marketing of these products,” he said.
Some lawmakers took credit for pushing the FDA to take such a sweeping step.
“The evidence is clear that menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars steer young people to smoking and have taken a heavy toll on communities of color, so I’m glad to see the agency heed my advice and fulfill its promise to get this done,” Senate Health Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, Washington state Democrat, said.
The prohibition is likely to spark pushback, however, from those who say banning a popular product is counterproductive because it pushes sales into the illicit market.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on Twitter the effort to ban menthol began during his tenure and had bipartisan support, but added, “We must advance efforts to provide current smokers alternatives to combustible tobacco.”
The FDA estimated in 2019 there were over 18.5 million menthol cigarette smokers aged 12 and older in the U.S., with particularly high rates of use among youth, young adults and Black Americans.
The agency cited research that estimates 324,000 to 654,000 smoking deaths will be avoided in the next 40 years, including 92,000 to 238,000 among Black Americans, if menthol cigarettes are no longer available.
The proposed ban would not levy penalties against individual users but would apply to manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers and retailers.