April 28, 2021
The Biden administration is expected to announce this week that it will propose a ban on menthol cigarettes, an action urgently sought by tobacco opponents and civil rights groups that say African Americans have been disproportionately hurt by the industry’s aggressive targeting of Black communities.
The administration also is poised to say it will seek to ban menthol and other flavors in mass-produced cigars, including small cigars popular with young people, according to administration officials familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss it publicly.
It could be years before such bans would take effect, but the administration’s announcement is likely to be hailed by antismoking organizations as a critical and long-overdue step in curbing tobacco use and improving public health. Despite sharp declines in smoking in recent years, tobacco use remains a leading source of illness and death in the United States and worldwide, especially among people of color.
Antismoking groups have been frustrated for years by Washington’s inaction on menthol cigarettes and have turned to states and localities to request bans, with mixed success. They became more optimistic about a possible federal ban in recent months amid President Biden’s repeated vows to reduce health disparities made glaringly obvious by the coronavirus pandemic, and efforts by the Black Lives Matter movement to focus on institutionalized racism.
The Food and Drug Administration faces a court deadline Thursday to respond to a 2013 citizen petition seeking a menthol-cigarette ban. The suit was filed by public health groups last year to compel the FDA to respond to the petition. It is pending in federal district court in Northern California.
“There is not an open question on whether menthol in cigarettes is harmful — the evidence is overwhelming and consistent,” Joelle Lester, director of commercial tobacco control programs at the Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Minnesota, said in a recent interview. The law center led a group of 19 public health organizations to file the 2013 petition.
“The Biden administration doesn’t know how to solve every problem. But they know what to do here, and they can do it,” Lester said.
Unlike many of the administration’s plans, a ban on menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars does not require congressional approval. But the FDA first must put out proposed rules and consider public comments. Any final regulation banning menthol cigarettes would almost surelybe challenged in court by the industry, which has repeatedly sued the FDA to try to block anti-tobacco regulation.
The administration is still considering another long-sought goal of antismoking activists: requiring tobacco companies to lower the amount of nicotine in cigarettes to nonaddictive levels. But it will not announce action on that issue this week, said the people with knowledge of the situation.
The FDA declined to comment on the administration’s plans.
On menthol, African American health groups and researchers say it is clear that Blacks have been disproportionately hurt by the cigarettes, which studies show are more addictive and harder to stop using
than non-menthol cigarettes. In the 1950s, only about 10 percent of Black smokers used menthol cigarettes. Today, that proportion is more than 85 percent, three times the rate for White smokers. African Americans die of tobacco-related
illnesses, including cancer and heart disease, at higher rates than other groups, according to studies.
Researchers also have found that menthol contributes heavily to young smokers of all races starting the habit by masking the throat irritation caused by cigarettes. Small, flavored cigars, called cigarillos, also have become increasingly popular among young people, studies show.
Civil rights groups and Black health organizations say the popularity of menthol cigarettes
among African Americans reflects a calculated campaign by manufacturers to target communities of color that began decades ago.
“The predatory marketing of menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products must be stopped and we should all recognize this as a social justice issue, and one that disproportionately impacts youth and communities of color,” said a recent letter from 10 civil rights and Black health organizations to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra pressing for a ban. Signers included the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, the NAACP and the National Medical Association, which represents Black physicians.
The letter noted that the tobacco industry gave away free samples menthol cigarettes at gatherings in African American neighborhoods, promoted menthol tobacco through extensive advertising and sponsored educational and cultural events, such as jazz festivals, popular with the Black community. Throughout the years, the industry also has donated generously to the political campaigns of many Black, as well as White, lawmakers.
The industry has denied targeting Black communities or officials. In a recent statement, Kaelan Hollon, a spokeswoman for Reynolds American, maker of Newport, the most popular menthol cigarette, said the company markets its product “to reach a wide and diverse audience of adult smokers, regardless of their ethnicity or gender, with the intention of persuading smokers to choose one of our brands rather than a brand of one of our competitors.”
She added that “the science does not support regulating menthol cigarettes differently than non-menthol cigarettes, and the many issues implicated by a menthol cigarette ban — science, illicit trade and unintended consequences — are important and merit careful thought.”