FDA’s plan to ban menthol cigarettes is overdue

Other countries, including Canada and countries in the European Union, have already taken this potentially live-saving step to take a more addictive product off the market.

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Menthol cigarettes are seen for sale on a shelf at a Quick Stop store on March 30, 2010 in Miami, Florida.

Menthol cigarettes on a store shelf in 2020. The FDA’s move to finally ban menthol-flavored cigarettes and flavored cigars is overdue.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration last month finally moved forward with an official proposal to ban menthol cigarettes, a significant and long-overdue move we support to help save lives.

The more steps taken to encourage smokers to quit, the better. The U.S. banned other flavored cigarettes in 2009 but gave menthol an exception in a move that riled anti-smoking and public health advocates.

Canada banned menthol cigarettes in 2017, pushing more menthol smokers to kick the habit than smokers of regular cigarettes. More than 30 other countries have banned menthol as well, including every country in the European Union.

In 2018, then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced he planned to seek a ban a few months after San Francisco included menthol cigarettes in its local law banning flavored vaping products.

The agency is now taking public comment on the proposed ban as part of its rule-making process and will hold virtual public listening sessions on June 13 and 15.

Editorial

Editorial

After that, the FDA should forge ahead without delay. Eventually, tens of thousands of lives — between 324,000 and 654,000, the FDA reports — will be saved.

Up to 1.3 million smokers would eventually quit, too, as one highly publicized study has found.

Protecting young people

The arguments for banning menthol cigarettes are clear and rooted in science, as the FDA pointed out in its April 28 announcement.

Menthol’s minty flavor and aroma reduce the irritation and harshness of smoking and make it more appealing, especially to young people experimenting with smoking. Studies also show menthol makes it harder to quit, since it enhances nicotine’s addictive effect.

Some menthol smokers may, of course, switch to regular cigarettes. Adults are entitled to make that decision. We’re not advocating for a nanny state that seeks to protect everyone from anything that could cause harm.

But there’s no good reason — lost tax revenue is not enough to convince us — to keep a more-addictive version of an unhealthy product on the market, especially when that product is more likely to lure young people into a destructive habit.

“The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit,” as Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “Additionally, the proposed rules represent an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.”

Among middle school and high school smokers, 39% smoke menthol cigarettes; the figure jumps to 51% among those ages 18 to 25, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

The FDA proposal would also ban flavored cigars, which are increasingly popular among young people. More than 500,000 young people have used flavored cigars, and more young people are reportedly trying cigars than cigarettes.

Targeting the Black community

Racial disparities are clear, as well: 85% of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes — no surprise since Big Tobacco has heavily advertised its product on billboards in Black communities and in Black magazines and other media for years. Black men also have the highest rate of lung cancer in the U.S.

Hispanic smokers, too, are more likely than whites to smoke menthol cigarettes — 48% compared with 30%, respectively.

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Some Black leaders say a menthol ban would be discriminatory, opening the door for an illegal market and for local law enforcement to harass and arrest people, most of them Black, who sell “loosies” — loose cigarettes — on the street.

That’s a legitimate concern, but the message is tarnished when Big Tobacco provides support for prominent voices making that argument.

It’s important to note the FDA proposal calls for enforcement only against “manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers and retailers” of menthol cigarettes. There would be no ban on individual use or possession.

Stepped-up harassment must be resolved as a local policing matter.

Public health comes first.

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