WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. government will outline its long-awaited plan on Thursday to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, which have taken a disproportionate toll on black smokers and other minorities.
Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf introduced the announcement in congressional testimony, saying the proposal would reduce illness and death by helping current smokers quit and preventing young people from starting.
Menthol accounts for more than a third of cigarettes sold in the United States, and the mint flavor is popular with black smokers and young people.
The FDA has repeatedly attempted to get rid of menthol, but has been rebuffed by Big Tobacco, members of Congress, and competing political interests under Democratic and Republican administrations.
The agency came under legal pressure to issue a ruling after anti-tobacco and civil rights groups sued the FDA for “unreasonably” delaying action on previous menthol ban requests. The cooling effect of menthol has been shown to mask throat stiffness caused by smoking, making it easier to start and harder to quit.
The FDA will also seek to ban menthol and dozens of overly sweet and fruity flavors from little cigars, which are increasingly popular with young people, especially black teenagers.
The agency’s proposals on cigarettes and cigars will only be drafts. The FDA will take comments before issuing final rules, which could then face years of legal challenges from tobacco companies.
Menthol is the only cigarette flavor that was not banned by the 2009 law that gave the FDA authority over tobacco products, an exemption brokered by industry lobbyists. The act, however, asked the agency to continue to weigh a ban.
Last April, the Biden administration pledged to try to ban menthol within a year, responding in part to African-American groups who say menthol has led to lower quit rates and increased death rate among blacks. Menthols are used by 85% of black smokers.
“Black people die disproportionately from heart disease, lung cancer and strokes,” said Phillip Gardiner of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. “Menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars have been major vectors of these diseases in black and brown communities for a long time.”
In 2020, Gardiner’s group and several others filed a lawsuit to force the FDA to make a decision on a ban.
The FDA has made several efforts to begin phasing out menthol under the Obama and Trump administrations, but has never previously released an official roadmap for how the process will work.
“It’s the first time there’s been administration support,” said Mitch Zeller, who recently retired after nine years as head of the FDA’s tobacco control center. “If these rules are finalized, they become the law of the land and it becomes illegal to sell menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.”
In recent weeks, dozens of interest groups — for and against the ban — have met with Biden administration officials to try to influence the proposed rule, which would wipe out billions in tobacco sales.
For decades, tobacco companies have focused menthol advertising and promotions in black communities, sponsoring music festivals and neighborhood events. Industry documents released as part of litigation show that companies viewed menthol cigarettes as a good “starter product” because they were more palatable to teenagers.
Eliminating menthol would be a blow to tobacco companies, including Marlboro maker Altria and Reynolds American, which sells major menthol brands, Newport and Kool. With the slow decline of smoking, tobacco companies have branched out into alternative products, including e-cigarettes and tobacco pouches. But these companies still represent only a tiny fraction of the industry’s sales.
More than 12% of Americans smoke cigarettes, with roughly identical rates between white and black populations.
Follow Matthew Perrone on Twitter: @AP_FDAwriter
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.