FDA announces plan to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes and all flavored cigars within the next year; likely to be a long process

Menthol cigarettes (New England Public Media photo)

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The Food and Drug Administration announced a plan Thursday to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes and all flavored cigars within the next year. The proposed ban is likely the beginning of a long process that could take years to implement, CNBC reports.

The agency says the goal is to “reduce tobacco addiction” and curb deaths. “Banning menthol — the last allowable flavor — in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products,” acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said in a news release. “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.”
The ban is not expected to take effect within a year, because it will take years to produce sufficient evidence to support it, and it is likely to face legal challenges from the cigarette industry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that as of 2018, sales of menthol cigarettes made up 36% of all cigarette sales in the U.S.

Richmond, Virginia-based Altria Group, which controls about 17% of the menthol market, told CNBC, “We share the common goal of moving adult smokers from cigarettes to potentially less harmful alternatives, but prohibition does not work. Criminalizing menthol will lead to serious unintended consequences,” such as illegal sales.

Imperial Tobacco‘s ITG Brands, which has about 8% of the market, told CNBC that the FDA’s decision was “disappointing” but expected: “We believe the rulemaking process will reveal that there is no clear scientific evidence to support a federal menthol and flavor ban. We are hopeful that FDA will follow the law and prioritize sound policy and science over political pressure.”

The proposal does not set an effective date. Its next step will be publication of the proposed rules and an opportunity for public comment.
Anti-smoking groups have long called for this ban, supported by research that shows Big Tobacco has deliberately targeted Black communities, especially youth, with marketing menthol cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products.
Menthol products also have a strong appeal for youth, since menthol numbs the throat and reduces irritation from smoking and makes it easier for them to start smoking.
If implemented, one study suggests that within the first 13 to 17 months of a ban, an additional 923,000 American smokers would quit, including 230,000 African Americans. Another study projected a ban would prevent about 633,000 American deaths, including nearly a quarter million African Americans.
“This ban is a crucial step in preventing youth initiation and addiction to nicotine and will help mitigate some of the health outcome disparities for African Americans,” Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said in a press release. “The foundation applauds the FDA for taking this step to improve Americans’ health, save lives and reduce health care costs.”

The proposal also gained the support of Dr. Richard E. Besser, president and chief of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in a op-ed in The Hill: “Together, these actions would provide a monumental victory for public health, a generational advancement in our nation’s efforts to achieve health equity, and a significant step forward to protect ourselves against future pandemics.”

About 20 million Americans smoke menthol cigarettes, including nearly 85% of Black smokers and 30% of white smokers, says the release. Tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death among African Americans. Some 45,000 African Americans die annually from tobacco-related diseases.

If implemented, the regulations would only apply to manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers and retailers to ensure the products do not make their way onto the market. It would not be enforced against individual consumer possession of the products, says the release.
The FDA made the decision to ban menthol products after facing an April 29 court-ordered deadline to respond to a citizen petition sent to the agency in 2013 to ban menthol as a flavor in cigarettes, Reuters reports.
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