WASHINGTON – U.S. health officials on Thursday again pledged to ban menthol cigarettes, this time under pressure from African American groups to remove the mint flavor popular with black smokers.
The Food and Drug Administration has tried to get rid of menthol several times, but has been pushed back by Big Tobacco, members of Congress, and competing political interests in both the Obama and Trump administrations. Implementing a menthol ban will take years and will likely face legal challenges from tobacco companies.
Thursday’s announcement is the result of a lawsuit filed last summer by anti-smoking and medical groups to compel the FDA to make a final decision on menthol.
The deadline for the agency’s reply was Thursday. The FDA said it intends to propose rules banning taste in the coming year and declined to speculate on when the rule would be finalized.
The action would also ban menthol and fruity flavors from cheap, small cigars, which are becoming increasingly popular with young people, especially black teenagers.
“We will save hundreds of thousands of lives and prevent future generations from becoming addicted to smokers,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the FDA.
She cited research estimates that banning menthol for 40 years would prevent 630,000 tobacco-related deaths, more than a third of those among African Americans.
Menthol is the only cigarette flavor not banned under the 2009 law that granted FDA approval for tobacco products, an exception negotiated by industry lobbyists. However, the law directed the agency to further weigh the menthol ban.
The persistence of taste has enraged anti-smoking advocates, who suggest that menthol’s numbing effects masks the harshness of smoking, likely making it easier to start and difficult to quit.
The mint flavored cigarettes are predominantly used by young people and minorities, especially black smokers, 85% of whom smoke menthol. That corresponds to about a third of white smokers.
“The science is there, the data is there. Why are these products still on the market?” said Carol McGruder of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council.
Her group sued along with Action on Smoking and Health, the American Medical Association, and the National Medical Association, which represents black doctors. Following the FDA’s announcement, the groups vowed to continue pushing for swift implementation: “This is not the end of this battle, just the next stage.”
For decades, companies focused on menthol marketing and promotions targeting black communities, including sponsoring music festivals and neighborhood events. Company documents published about litigation in the 1990s also show that companies viewed menthol cigarettes as good “starter” products because they were more palatable to teenagers.
“There was a special, deliberate focus on creating the next generation of smokers through the provision of menthol cigarettes in these communities,” said Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Group on Minority Health and Justice.
In the late 1990s, new restrictions banned cigarette advertising from billboards, public transportation, and most sponsorship events. Companies have shifted more promotions to retail locations like gas stations and convenience stores, which researchers have shown have a heavy focus on black neighborhoods
About a third of all cigarettes sold in the U.S. are menthol, and eliminating it would be a severe blow to tobacco companies including Altria and Reynolds American, makers of leading menthol brands Newport and Kool. With the slow decline in smoking, tobacco companies have specialized in alternative products such as electronic cigarettes and tobacco pouches. But these ventures still make up a tiny fraction of the industry’s revenue.
A spokeswoman for Reynolds American said the company will produce evidence that contradicts the FDA’s proposal.
“The published science supports the regulation of menthol cigarettes no differently than that of non-menthol,” she said in a statement.
An Altria spokesman said in a statement that “criminalizing menthol” would have “serious unintended consequences”.
The FDA stressed Thursday that its ban would only apply to manufacturers, distributors and retailers, not individuals.
Smoking can cause cancer, strokes, and heart attacks, and is responsible for 480,000 deaths a year in the United States. About 14% of Americans smoke cigarettes, with rates roughly even somewhere between white and black populations. However, black smokers are less likely to successfully quit, a trend the US surgeon general and others have attributed to menthol cigarettes.
Menthol occurs naturally in mint plants. Known for its cooling effects, the chemical is used in cough drops and other medicines. Cigarette manufacturers began adding the chemical in the 1920s after they found it reduced the throat throat popping of cigarettes.
Previous government efforts against menthol met with opposition from lawmakers in traditional tobacco states like North Carolina, but also from some members of the Black Caucus of Congress, many of whom have received campaign contributions from cigarette manufacturers.
Some caucus members warned that banning menthol would create an illegal market for the products, exposing black communities to heightened law enforcement.
But calls to action have increased, and last year the House of Representatives, with the support of a majority of black members, voted to ban the taste. The bill stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate after President Donald Trump made it clear he opposed the measure.
The FDA’s attempts to get rid of menthol have been repeatedly delayed or derailed by forces inside and outside the government.
In 2011, an external panel of FDA advisors recommended banning menthol after concluding that it increases smoking among young people and minorities and makes it harder for them to quit. However, the cigarette manufacturers questioned the results in court, claiming that some panel members had conflicts of interest that they had not disclosed.
In 2013, the FDA conducted its own internal study and came to similar conclusions, but the Obama administration did not pursue a ban.
Under the Trump administration, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb tried to start the process again, but the White House never gave him the go-ahead.
Massachusetts and California have passed laws banning menthol. However, California’s ban was suspended in January following a legal challenge backed by tobacco companies. The subject is on the ballot next year.
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science is supported by the Department of Science Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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