Federal regulators say they soon will ban the manufacture, distribution, and retail and wholesale selling of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, an action expected to take effect in a year or two and which anti-smoking advocates argue could save hundreds of thousands of lives of black and young Americans.
The Food and Drug Administration says the best available evidence argues powerfully for its planned ban, which some opponents have flipped as risky for one of the biggest groups that researchers say will benefit: African Americans.
Big Tobacco has targeted black consumers for decades, getting them and young people addicted to powerful nicotine by pushing the soothing effect of mint-derived menthol on the harshness of cigarette smoke, as the Washington Post reported:
“Menthol has deep roots in black communities. In the 1950s, about 10% of black smokers used menthol cigarettes. Today, more than 85% of black smokers choose menthol cigarettes — almost three times the proportion for white smokers. Researchers and regulators have found the sharp rise was a result of aggressive marketing in black communities — especially of menthol cigarettes — by the tobacco industry. The cigarette companies deny targeting black communities. African Americans die of tobacco-related illnesses, including cancer and heart disease, at higher rates than other groups.”
Indeed, the New York Times reported this of menthol cigarettes’ damage to African Americans:
“African American men have the highest rates of lung cancer in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Taking menthol cigarettes off the market is expected to further reduce smoking levels and reduce the number of young people taking up the habit. If the United States’ experience mirrors that of Canada after it banned menthol cigarettes, 1.3 million people would quit smoking and potentially hundreds of thousands of premature deaths could be averted, said Geoffrey Fong, principal investigator of the International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project. ‘This is potentially an extraordinary, landmark intervention to reduce the No. 1 preventable cause of death and disease,’ Mr. Fong said.”
A ban on menthol cigarettes — and on flavored cigars, especially smaller blunts popular with the young — has a stormy past, notably for how Big Tobacco has thrown its money and power around to block these significant anti-smoking steps, the New York Times reported:
“Public health advocates have long sought a menthol ban. When the landmark Tobacco Control Act passed in 2009, giving the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products, menthol was exempted from the tobacco flavors that would be banned. The exception rankled public health groups and a cadre of former U.S. cabinet health secretaries, who noted the 47,000 Black lives lost each year to smoking-related disease. Allowing menthol cigarettes to remain on the market ‘caves to the financial interests of tobacco companies and discriminates against African Americans,’ the health secretaries wrote in a letter to the Senate, when the tobacco control law was moving through Congress.
“The law left the matter in the hands of the FDA and its advisers, who took incremental steps forward. Agency advisers in 2011 said removing menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health, but stopped short of calling for a ban. Two years later, the FDA said menthol made it easier to start smoking and harder to quit, seeking comment on ‘potential regulation.’ A half decade passed before Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the FDA commissioner at the time, announced his intent to seek a menthol cigarette ban in 2018. He left the agency before achieving that goal. Last year, the agency said it would pursue the ban again, as well as eliminating flavors in small, mass-produced cigars that are popular with black and Latino teenagers.”
While the FDA foreshadowed as long as two years ago that it likely would seek to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, Big Tobacco and its allies, of course, have waged furious campaigns in opposition. Their arguments include their contention that different levels of government could lose billions of dollars in revenue from taxes collected on the destructive products. RAI Services Company, the cigarette maker formerly known as R.J. Reynolds, has much at stake, notably in protecting in market leading Newport menthol brand (shown above).
RAI has recruited at least one prominent black advocate for the industry, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who insists that Big Tobacco funding for the group he leads has not swayed him in simply questioning the menthol ban. It has raised hackles within the African American community, with the Black Congressional Caucus opposing the step before.
The suspicions in the community run so high that opponents, including the ACLU, fear that the menthol ban singles out blacks and could increase their chances for conflicts with law enforcement. As the Washington Post reported:
“The American Civil Liberties Union and several other groups also oppose the ban, with some citing the case of Eric Garner, a Black man who was killed in 2014 by New York police after being stopped for selling single cigarettes.”
The FDA has emphasized that its regulatory actions contain zero threat to individuals are aimed at makers, distributors, retailers, and wholesalers. The Washington Post quoted black proponents of the flavoring crackdown:
“These black leaders [opposing the FDA] are all saying the same thing they have said for a decade, that a ban on menthol will lead to the criminalization of black youth,’ said Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of the Center for Black Health & Equity, a nonprofit. ‘They are saying, ‘Don’t ban menthol, don’t ban something that is killing us.’ Derrick Johnson, president and chief executive officer of NAACP, said in a recent letter to administration officials that failing to ban menthol cigarettes would itself ‘be discriminatory and counter to the goal and function of the FDA to protect and promote public health for all, including the African-American community.’”
In my practice, I not only see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the clear benefits they may enjoy by staying health and far away from the U.S. health care system. It is fraught with medical error, preventable hospital acquired illnesses and deaths, and misdiagnoses.
The Washington Post reported this of the nation’s terrible smoking habits:
“Manufacturers sold 203.7 billion cigarettes in the United States in 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s annual Cigarette Report. That was the first increase in two decades but sharply lower than the peak in the 1980s, when annual sales exceeded 600 billion cigarettes.”
If you don’t smoke, please don’t start. If you smoke, talk to your doctor, and make the challenging effort to stop the habit that has been proven to cause cancers and other lung and heart disorders. There are other ways to do so without taking up vaping. No one argues it is good for you — just that it is less harmful and another possible way to quit smoking. That’s a dubious health argument, akin to asking whether it’s “better” to die in a car or plane crash. Neither, thank you.
By the way, the FDA ban would affect menthol cigarettes but not menthol e-cigarettes, as the New York Times reported, noting:
“The FDA is currently reviewing all vaping products being sold in the United States to determine whether to allow them to stay on the market. (Sales of these products began before the FDA had regulatory authority over them.) The agency has so far granted marketing approval to makers of some tobacco-flavored vapes. Some menthol products remain on the market as the agency mulls how to rule on some of the top-selling devices.”
Let’s clear the air not only of menthol in cigarettes but in vaping, too. We’ve got a lot of work to do to make ourselves, our loved ones, and our nation healthier, notably by dealing with avoidable or preventable causes of sickness and death.