By Kim Polacek, APR, CPRC - April 30, 2021
Menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars are one step closer to disappearing from store shelves. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it has begun the process to ban these products. It’s a move many say will significantly reduce disease and death linked to tobacco products.
“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 Dr. Janet Woodcock.
It could be a while before the ban on menthol flavored tobacco products goes into effect. The FDA still needs to publish its proposed rules in the Federal Register allowing an opportunity for public comment.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. Studies have found that flavors like menthol have increased the appeal of smoking because it masks the unpleasant flavor of tobacco. These products can also become more addictive, making it difficult to quit.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, non-Hispanic Black adults smoke menthol cigarettes the most. Additionally, roughly 54% of smokers ages 12-17 use menthol cigarettes.
“African Americans disproportionately suffer the health consequences of smoking, and the targeted marketing of menthol cigarettes is thought to account for much of this health disparity,” said Dr. Thomas Brandon, director of Moffitt’s Tobacco Research and Intervention Program and chair of the Health Outcomes & Behavior Department.
A recent study in the journal Tobacco Control evaluated tobacco use from 1980-2018 and found that menthol cigarettes were responsible for 10.1 million extra smokers, 3 million life years lost and 378,000 premature deaths during that period.
“This ban will help prevent thousands of young people from becoming dependent while helping thousands of adults quit smoking. Importantly, the ban will also address pronounced tobacco-related health disparities related to socioeconomic status. Overall, the menthol ban is a major win for public health in the war against tobacco,” said Dr. Damon Vidrine, a tobacco cessation researcher and vice chair of the Health Outcomes & Behavior Department at Moffitt.
The FDA menthol ban would focus on manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers and retailers, not individuals who use the products. However, several organizations believe that while the ban is well intentioned, it could have serious consequences. The American Civil Liberties Union released a statement following the FDA announcement stating that the ban “will eventually foster an underground market that is sure to trigger criminal penalties which will disproportionately impact people of color and prioritize criminalization over public health and harm reduction.”
A similar ban was proposed by the FDA in 2018, but did not happen.