The FDA is considering banning menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. Some activists worry that a ban would result in more policing of Black neighborhoods. Still, the FDA says the ban will target only the manufacture and sale of flavored tobacco products, not individual consumers.
Tobacco Companies Invest Big Money in Advertising
The ban on menthol cigarettes will be a major step in protecting the health and safety of American smokers. Many countries have banned menthol and other flavored tobacco products, and research shows that these bans have reduced smoking rates, especially among youth. In 2021, the FDA issued a rulemaking proposal to remove menthol from all tobacco and cigar products. However, the agency has faced challenges from the tobacco industry and competing political interests under Democratic and Republican administrations. The tobacco industry has argued that a menthol ban will increase illicit sales, mainly by selling flavored cigarettes outside regulated retail outlets. But this claim is based on several faulty assumptions, including that the volume of illegal cigarettes sold will significantly increase and that these cigarettes will be marketed to young people.
In addition, the tobacco industry claims that a menthol ban will lead African Americans to participate in the illicit market. Still, this claim is largely unfounded, as most civil penalties are issued to retailers, not consumers. Finally, the tobacco industry’s assertion that a menthol ban will harm communities by leading to economic losses is unfounded. Tobacco retailers have remained open in cities that have restricted menthol sales, such as Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, and the local economy has remained strong.
Tobacco Companies Target Black Communities
In 2006, a federal court found that tobacco companies had violated civil racketeering laws where menthol cigarettes target black community. The lawsuit alleged that tobacco companies had “committed a deliberate conspiracy to inundate the African American community with cigarette ads, promote and sell their mentholated products in violation of the civil rights of African Americans.”
While menthol smoking rates declined among white teenagers between 2011 and 2018, they have not fallen among African American teens, who are twice as likely to smoke them. That’s one reason why the FDA is seeking to ban menthol cigarettes and other flavored cigars. However, it’s important to note that Thursday’s proposals did not include a ban on flavored electronic cigarettes, which have been proven much less harmful than conventional tobacco. Many civil rights groups worry that a menthol cigarette ban could increase police enforcement in black neighborhoods. But critics of this concern point out that a ban would only impact the manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers, and retailers of flavored cigarettes. It would not impact individual consumers, who can still buy regular cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products in convenience stores or gas stations.
Tobacco Companies Target Youth
A ban on menthol cigarettes could make smoking less appealing and reduce the diseases and deaths associated with tobacco use. Menthol increases the appeal of tobacco products, especially among youth and African Americans, and masks nicotine’s unpleasant flavors and harshness.
In addition to cigarette advertising, the tobacco industry targets youth with flavored nicotine products. These products come in fruit and candy flavors, increasing the risk that child will become addicted to nicotine and later smoke regular cigarettes. While e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes, they still contain addictive nicotine and are increasingly popular among teens. As a result, they should be banned as well.
Many countries have already banned menthol cigarettes and found that smokers quit more quickly when they switched to non-menthol cigarettes. And one study projects that eliminating menthol in the United States would lead more than 923,000 smokers to stop, including nearly 230,000 African Americans, within two years of the ban’s implementation. The FDA has proposed rules to prohibit the sale of menthol cigars and cigarettes in the U.S. These new product standards will only apply to manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers, and retailers. The FDA will not enforce these rules against individual consumers and won’t preempt state or local laws addressing these issues.
Tobacco Companies Target African Americans
The lawsuit against Big Tobacco says the companies have targeted African American communities with specific advertising for decades. It cites evidence that low-income neighborhoods in major U.S. cities tend to have more cigarette billboards than neighboring, higher-income white areas. It claims that black smokers are less likely to quit smoking and have a higher risk of dying from tobacco-related illnesses. This ban also applies to flavored cigars that are available at many convenience stores, gas stations and other places and do not fall under the 2009 ban on cigarette flavors. Researchers estimate that up to 30% of cigarette smokers in the United States use flavored cigarettes.
Research shows that smokers who switch to non-flavored cigarettes experience an easier time quitting. So it is unsurprising that a menthol ban would significantly improve smoking cessation outcomes and help reduce smoking-related deaths in the United States. But, as with all things related to health policy and politics, a court battle is likely to ensue over implementing a menthol ban. And it will take years for researchers to know the true impact of a menthol ban.