FDA Seeks Ban on Menthol Cigarettes

The country’s top drug regulator says its proposed rules “would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit.”

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday proposed new rules that would prohibit the sale of menthol cigarettes in the United States.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said that the new rules, which would also include a ban on flavored cigars, “would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit.”

“Additionally, the proposed rules represent an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities,” Becerra said in a statement.

The move was made possible back in 2009, when Congress passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act that was then signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The statute empowered the FDA to regulate tobacco products, and the regulatory body responded by imposing on a ban on virtually all flavored cigarettes.

But menthol cigarettes were exempted in that ban, due in part to opposition from the Congressional Black Caucus at the time.

As The New York Times reported Thursday, the proposed ban “would most likely have the deepest impact on Black smokers, nearly 85% of whom use menthol cigarettes, compared with 29% of white smokers.”

According to The Washington Post, “many members [of the Congressional Black Caucus] now support a ban” on menthol cigarettes.

“The authority to adopt tobacco product standards is one of the most powerful tools Congress gave the FDA and the actions we are proposing can help significantly reduce youth initiation and increase the chances that current smokers quit. It is clear that these efforts will help save lives,” said Robert M. Califf, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. “Through the rulemaking process, there’s an important opportunity for the public to make their voices heard and help shape the FDA’s ongoing efforts to improve public health.”

The FDA said that, as of 2019, “there were more than 18.5 million current menthol cigarette smokers ages 12 and older in the U.S., with particularly high rates of use by youth, young adults, and African American and other racial and ethnic groups.”

“Menthol is a flavor additive with a minty taste and aroma that reduces the irritation and harshness of smoking. This increases appeal and makes menthol cigarettes easier to use, particularly for youth and young adults,” the administration explained. “Menthol also interacts with nicotine in the brain to enhance nicotine’s addictive effects. The combination of menthol’s flavor, sensory effects and interaction with nicotine in the brain increases the likelihood that youth who start using menthol cigarettes will progress to regular use. Menthol also makes it more difficult for people to quit smoking.”

The Times reported that the FDA’s exemption on menthol in 2009 “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.” Those former secretaries, The Times said, argued that keeping menthol on shelves “caves to the financial interests of tobacco companies and discriminates against African Americans.”

But the FDA made it clear last year that it would renew its efforts to ban menthol cigarettes, saying at the time that it was “working toward issuing proposed product standards within the next year to ban menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes and ban all characterizing flavors (including menthol) in cigars; the authority to adopt product standards is one of the most powerful tobacco regulatory tools Congress gave the agency.”

The Times reported that White House records “show recent meetings with supporters of a ban, including the American Heart Association and American Academy of Pediatrics,” but that others, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, remain staunchly opposed.

Sharpton, The Times said, “recently secured a meeting with White House officials along with King & Spalding, a lobbying firm with an extensive record of advocating for RAI Services Company, the cigarette maker formerly known as R.J. Reynolds.”

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