WASHINGTON – The Biden administration announced plansto push for a ban on menthol cigarettes, a product that has long been the target of anti-smoking advocates and civil rights activists who say the industry has aggressively marketed to Black Americans.
“With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock in a press release.
The cigarette ban would not require congressional approval, but the Food and Drug Administration would have to submit proposed rules and seek public comment. A final ban could take years and would likely be challenged in court by the tobacco industry, which has repeatedly sued the FDA to block anti-tobacco regulation.
“For far too long, certain populations, including African Americans, have been targeted, and disproportionately impacted by tobacco use. Despite the tremendous progress we’ve made in getting people to stop smoking over the past 55 years, that progress hasn’t been experienced by everyone equally,” Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, added in a statement.
In 2018, the FDA moved to limit flavored e-cigarette products that appealed to children, including fruit and mint, but menthol was not included. That came nine years after the agency banned cigarettes with “characterizing flavors other than menthol,” which also appealed to youth.
A citizen petition filed in 2013 by national public health advocates called for the FDA to ban menthol as one of those “characterizing flavors.” The FDA was to answer that petition by Thursday.
Cigarette smoking has declined in recent years, but tobacco use remains a leading source of illness and death in the United States and worldwide, especially among people of color.
Young people and African Americans are more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 54% of smokers ages 12-17 use menthol, and 7 in 10 African American smokers in that age group smoke menthol cigarettes. Non-Hispanic Black adults smoke the most menthol cigarettes, the CDC says.
The ACLU is among those likely to be in opposition to such a move. In 2020, when a House bill proposed a ban on menthol among other flavored tobacco products, the rights group said such an action would have disproportionate impacts on communities of color. In a letter at the time to the chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the ACLU noted criminal penalties arising out of enforcement of such a ban would hit minority communities harder.
CDC: Majority of Black Americans who smoke use menthol cigarettes
Public health experts say the prohibition is a significant opportunity to improve the life of Black Americans.
The majority of Black Americans who smoke use menthol cigarettes, according to the CDC, and a majority who started smoking began using menthol cigarettes. The product is more addictive than cigarettes without menthol, studies show, and has a cooling effect in the body.
Ruqaiijah Yearby, a lawyer who specializes in public health policy, is director of the Institute for Healing Justice and Equity at St. Louis University. Her piece, “Just to Get By: Poverty, Racism, and Smoking” in a forthcoming Cambridge University Press book, explores structural inequities and policies that perpetuate smoking disparities. She said policies must also implement strategies to close the gaps.
“My worry … is that we’ll get to the passage of some of these policies without ensuring that it covers the most vulnerable… that it addresses the disproportionate impact on Black and Latino people,” Yearby said.
Researchers have long known about the disparities in menthol cigarette use and its harmful effects on Black communities – and they’ve long regarded it as a pediatric issue: Among Black teenagers ages 12 to 17 who used tobacco, 71% smoked menthol, according to the CDC.
“We’ve known about this, I mean, forever – but definitely the beginning of the decade,” Yearby said, recalling pushback to advocacy on the issue.
Opinion:With menthol cigarettes, Big Tobacco targets Black lives. Don’t allow profiting from death.
Black people are more likely to die of smoking-related illness than white people, and tobacco use in general is a prime contributor to heart disease, cancer and stroke among Black Americans.
“Big Tobacco for the past 60 years has really targeted the African American community,” said Tampa-based pediatrician Dr. Toni Richards-Rowley, vice president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The doctor also sits on the AAP’s health equity and government affairs committees.
She pointed to billboards featuring Black models, and ads in magazines with primarily Black readerships.
“This is a problem. The targeting of children, and certainly Black children, with a very addictive product creates adults who are addicted to menthol cigarettes,” she said. “The health disparities that result from that are extraordinary.”
She said the dangers and risk factors associated with menthol smoking are further emphasized as Black communities and other people of color suffer disproportionately from COVID-19. The health effects of smoking are a “perfect storm” for adverse COVID-19 outcomes.
“This has been languishing before the FDA for over a decade,” she said. “Now’s the time to act. Now’s the time to make a change.”
Contributing: Matthew Brown, USA TODAY