FDA Proposed a Ban on Menthol Cigarettes in United States
The proposal is as yet far from the implementation stage – it has to go through rounds of public comments and objections before it can be passed, and then it is likely to run into legal challenges from tobacco companies and others.
We explain why the FDA has zeroed in on menthol cigarettes, why these cigarettes are used more by the African American community, and the debate around the proposal.
The FDA plans to extend the prohibition countrywide.
The FDA said it has come up with “proposed product standards to prohibit menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes and prohibit all characterizing flavors (other than tobacco) in cigars.”
“The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
“Additionally, the proposed rules represent an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.”
The proposed ban does not cover electronic cigarettes.
The FDA has made it clear that it “cannot and will not enforce against individual consumers for possession or use of menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars,” and the rules will only “address manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers and retailers who manufacture, distribute, or sell such products.”
The agency says menthol, with its minty taste and aroma, “reduces the irritation and harshness of smoking. This increases appeal and makes menthol cigarettes easier to use, particularly for youth and young adults.
Menthol also interacts with nicotine in the brain to enhance nicotine’s addictive effects, while making it more difficult for people to quit smoking.”
The agency said “modeling studies have estimated a 15 percent reduction in smoking within 40 years” if menthol cigarettes were banned.
The high rate of usage of these cigarettes means the proposed ban will affect a large share of the smoker population, especially young adults and racially disadvantaged groups, who are less likely to be able to afford counseling and institutional help to quit.
The FDA says that in 2019, “there were more than 18.5 million current menthol cigarette smokers ages 12 and older in the US.”
Apart from menthol, all other flavours in cigarettes were banned in the US in 2009.
According to various activist groups, over decades, tobacco companies used “predatory” and “targetted” advertising to lure Black consumers towards menthol cigarettes, which are harder to quit and more harmful to health.
The efforts have extended beyond advertising to include marketing techniques too. Again according to CDC, tobacco firms use “price promotions such as discounts and multi-pack couponswhich are most often used by African Americans and other minority groups, women, and young peopleto increase sales,” areas with “large racial/ethnic minority populations tend to have more tobacco retailers.”
“Menthol products are given more shelf space in retail outlets within African American and other minority neighborhoods.”
Smoking also hits the community harder than their White counterparts – the CDC says that although “African Americans usually smoke fewer cigarettes and start smoking cigarettes at an older age, they are more likely to die from smoking-related diseases than Whites.”
Thus, when the FDA announced its ban proposal on Thursday, civic organisation National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called it a “victory for Black America.”
NAACP president Derrick Johnson was quoted as saying by The New York Times, “These products have killed our children, our parents, our brothers, sisters and livelihoods. After fighting against deadly menthol products for decades, today is a victory for Black America.”
Tobacco firms have disputed the scientific evidence that menthol cigarettes are more harmful than regular cigarettes. Other critics have claimed that the ban will cause the government significant revenue loss, while some have said it will harm more than help African Americans.
Altria, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world, said “harm reduction, not prohibition, is the better path forward.“
“Taking these products out of the legal marketplace will push them into unregulated, criminal markets that don’t follow any regulations and ignore minimum age laws,” Altria said in a statement.
Think Tank Tax Foundation has claimed that if the ban comes into effect, the federal and state governments together “stand to lose more than $6.6 billion in the first full year following prohibition.”
Some activists have flagged concerns that the ban could push Black smokers towards “criminalisation.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement, “There are serious concerns that the ban implemented by the Biden administration 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.”
India has not banned the sale of menthol cigarettes.