Menthol Cigarettes Could Become A Thing Of The Past

While supporters tout the public health benefits of a menthol ban, some warn it could exacerbate issues with policing in Black and brown communities.

Newport and Camel cigarettes are stacked on a shelf inside a tobacco store in New York July 11, 2014. | Reuters
Newport and Camel cigarettes are stacked on a shelf inside a tobacco store in New York July 11, 2014. | Reuters

The Tobacco Control Act, which became law in 2009, banned flavored cigarettes, with one exception: menthol. Twelve years later, that could change.

The U.S. will take steps in the next year to ban menthol flavoring in cigarettes and cigars, the FDA announced on April 29. Doing so will save lives, particularly in marginalized communities, and will “significantly reduce youth initiation,” FDA acting commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock said in a statement.

“Together, these actions represent powerful, science-based approaches that will have an extraordinary public health impact,” Dr. Woodcock said. “Armed with strong scientific evidence, and with full support from the Administration, we believe these actions will launch us on a trajectory toward ending tobacco-related disease and death in the U.S.”

The FDA said the ban, if implemented, would only apply to manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers, and retailers. 

“The FDA cannot and will not enforce against individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes or any tobacco product,” the agency said. “The FDA will work to make sure that any unlawful tobacco products do not make their way onto the market.”

Menthol cigarettes, which have a minty flavor with a cooling effect when smoked, are popular among young smokers. According to the FDA, more than 50% of teen smokers use menthol cigarettes. For years, tobacco companies have marketed menthol cigarettes toward Black Americans. 

“For generations, the tobacco industry has intentionally targeted Black, Brown and other communities with the marketing of menthol cigarettes, resulting in tobacco-related death and disease as well as health disparities,” American Lung Association President and CEO Harold Wimmer said in a statement applauding the announcement. 

According to the FDA, more than 85% of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes compared to approximately 29% of white smokers; a 2010 study published in Addiction concluded that “among African Americans, menthol cigarette smoking is associated with a decreased likelihood of smoking cessation.” 

“These flavor standards would reduce cigarette and cigar initiation and use, reduce health disparities, and promote health equity by addressing a significant and disparate source of harm,” director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products Mitch Zeller said in the statement.

The FDA’s announcement comes on the day it faced a deadline to respond to a citizen petition calling for a ban on menthol cigarettes. (A citizen petition lets the public request the FDA make a change to health policy.) While the petition was filed in 2013, the FDA agreed to the 2021 deadline after facing a lawsuit the previous year.

“Prohibiting the sale of menthol cigarettes is one of the most powerful steps the FDA can take to improve America’s health,” read the petition. “In light of the scientific evidence, there is no justification for continuing to give special treatment to the most deadly of all cigarette flavors.”

While the FDA and supporters of its announcement tout the public health benefits of a potential menthol ban, the American Civil Liberties Union warned the action could exacerbate existing issues with policing in Black and brown communities.

“Time and time again, we see encounters with police over minor offenses — for Daunte Wright it was expired tags, for George Floyd it was using a counterfeit bill, for Eric Garner it was selling loose cigarettes — result in a killing,” Aamra Ahmad, senior legislative counsel with the ACLU, said in a statement on April 28.

Ahmad said such a ban could lead to “an underground market” and “criminal penalties” that would disproportionately hurt communities of color.

“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.”

The ACLU wrote a letter on April 26 imploring Dr. Woodcock and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to consider other harm-reduction approaches rather than an outright ban. You can read the letter here.

The menthol ban isn’t the only move the Biden administration is potentially going to take with respect to cigarettes. According to the Wall Street Journal, the administration is considering mandating that tobacco companies significantly reduce nicotine in all cigarettes sold in the U.S. to non-addictive levels.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at an April 20 press briefing that the administration “will review a range of policy options in line with the president’s public health goals.” She added: “There are no policy proposals or decisions to review today.”

More than 480,000 deaths per year in the U.S. are attributed to cigarette smoking, including deaths from exposure to secondhand smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While nicotine is not responsible for causing lung disease, cancer, and most diseases related to smoking, the chemical makes cigarette smoking addictive. Some ways to reduce nicotine levels include modifying the DNA of tobacco plants or removing nicotine from tobacco leaves during manufacturing, according to the WSJ.

This isn’t the first time that U.S. policymakers have explored the possibility of reducing nicotine levels in cigarettes. In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration announced that as part of its comprehensive tobacco and nicotine regulation plan, it would explore lowering levels of nicotine in cigarettes to minimally addictive or non-addictive levels.

“Because nicotine lives at the core of both the problem and the solution to the question of addiction, addressing the addictive levels of nicotine in combustible cigarettes must be part of the FDA’s strategy for addressing the devastating, addiction crisis that is threatening American families,” then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said at the time.

A May 2018 FDA-funded study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that reducing the nicotine in cigarettes to minimally addictive levels would lead 5 million smokers to quit within a year, compared to if no such reduction was made.

After Gottlieb left the FDA in 2019, the exploratory plans to lower nicotine levels fizzled, according to multiple reports.