President Biden, who lost a son to the disease, has a personal commitment to fighting cancer. He has made improving Americans’ health a top priority of his administration, calling for trillions of dollars in government spending in this area. He also has said he wants his officials to be at the fore in slashing at racial inequities in health care.
These are big reasons why the NAACP, along with a leading black doctors’ group and other activists have called on Biden and Xavier Becerra, the head of the federal Health and Human Services agency, to take the steps, finally, to ban menthol flavorings in cigarettes. The Washington Post reported on the latest developments in this long-running campaign:
“Menthol is the only flavor allowed in cigarettes; others were prohibited by a 2009 law. The FDA has said it will respond by April 29 to a lawsuit stemming from a citizen petition filed seven years ago that sought a prohibition on menthol in cigarettes. Within the agency, there is strong support for banning both menthol cigarettes and small cigars, which are popular with young people, according to several administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue. The White House is weighing whether to take the first steps to ban menthol. President Biden is almost certain to be involved in the decision …”
The flavoring ban would affect manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers, and would not be targeted at consumers. But it could have significant benefits for the health of African Americans, the newspaper reported:
“[I]n the 1950s, fewer than 10% of black smokers used menthol cigarettes. Today, that proportion is 85%, about three times the rate for white smokers. Studies have shown that the menthol flavor makes smoking easier to start and harder to stop. The result, the letter said, is ‘devastating’ — despite smoking fewer cigarettes and generally starting at a later age, blacks die of tobacco-related illnesses at higher rates than other groups. The groups also noted that maternal smoking remains a major cause of premature birth and increases the incidence of infant mortality. And they said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that smoking increases the risk of severe covid-19, which has exacted an especially heavy toll on the black community. Studies also have shown that menthol is a major contributor to smoking initiation among young people of all races, in part because of the ‘cooling’ sensation of menthol. The groups said that the tobacco industry orchestrated a ‘a calculated campaign,’ beginning in the 1950s, to target African American communities by giving away samples of menthol cigarettes at neighborhood gatherings, promoting menthol tobacco through extensive advertising and sponsoring cultural and educational events popular with the black community.”
Health officials in three successive presidential administrations have considered bans on flavored cigarettes. But ferocious opposition from Big Tobacco and its southern congressional allies have stymied the prohibitions from advancing. When a furor erupted over e-cigarettes and vaping, Trump officials took incremental but increasingly aggressive actions to avert what threatened to be a situation where a generation of young people would get addicted to nicotine and be put on a path to even more harmful habits like smoking regular cigarettes and abusing other tobacco products.
Regulators’ crackdowns included bans on most vaping-liquid flavors, especially those that were sweet, fruity, and candy-like. But menthol survived, and the absence of crackdowns on it angered advocates for the health and well-being of the young and communities of color.
The current administration, even if it decides to ban menthol, would be required to go through extensive and potentially time-consuming policy-making steps that likely would be challenged in the courts, notably by Big Tobacco. Still, advocates for public health and the improved well-being of communities of color, would consider a menthol ban a major accomplishment for a presidential administration.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the significant injury that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by defective and dangerous products, notably the perilous wares peddled by Big Tobacco.
Cigarette smoking, federal officials report, is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. It caused in pre-pandemic times more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States. Smoking caused in more normal times more deaths each year than these causes combined: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, vehicle injuries, and firearm-related incidents.
Smoking causes about 9 out of 10 of all lung cancer deaths, experts say. More women die from lung cancer each year than from breast cancer. Smoking causes 8 out of 10 of all deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). And it increases risk for death from all causes in men and women.
If you don’t smoke or vape now, please don’t start. And if you do, please talk with loved ones and your doctor about ways to stop. You’ll soon feel better, and your health likely will improve. You may find more money in your wallet or purse, too, especially with the average retail price for a pack of smokes runs at $6.65 a pack, or $688 annually for a two-pack-per-week smoker.
We’ve got a lot of work to do to snuff out the nasty, unhealthy, and expensive habits of smoking and vaping. Who thinks menthol cigarettes, in particular, are anywhere near cool and not just a speedier way to wasteful spending, addiction, debilitation, and even death?