Explained: Why the US Wants to Ban Menthol Cigarettes and What ‘Racial Justice’ Has to Do With It


United States Food and drug administration Thursday, April 28, released a proposal to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, a move aimed not only at curbing smoking among the U.S. population, but also to “reduce tobacco-related health disparities” .

Menthol cigarettes are used disproportionately in the African American community compared to white Americans. The New York Times cited a US government survey that found nearly 85% of African Americans smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to 29% of white smokers.

The FDA’s decision was therefore hailed by many as likely to help reduce the burden of tobacco-related illnesses, particularly in the black population. However, he also received backlash from other quarters for potentially pushing more black smokers towards “criminalization”.

The proposal is still a long way from the implementation stage – it must go through rounds of public comment and objection before it can pass, then it is likely to face legal challenges from tobacco companies and others.

We explain why the FDA focused on menthol cigarettes, why these cigarettes are used more by the African-American community, and the debate around the proposal.

What exactly is the FDA proposal?

While some US states have already banned menthol cigarettes, the FDA plans to expand the ban nationwide.

Inviting public comment from May 5 through July 5, the FDA said it had “proposed product standards to prohibit menthol as a characteristic flavor in cigarettes and prohibit all characteristic flavors (other than tobacco) in cigars”.

“The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said. “Furthermore, the proposed rules represent an important step in advancing health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.”

The proposed ban does not cover e-cigarettes.

If the ban goes into effect, who will be penalized?

The FDA has made it clear that it “cannot and will not impose on individual consumers the possession or use of menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars”, and the rules will only apply to “manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers and retailers who manufacture, distribute, or sell these products.

Why does the FDA consider menthol cigarettes particularly dangerous?

The agency claims that menthol, with its minty taste and aroma, “reduces the irritation and harshness of smoking. This increases appeal and makes menthol cigarettes easier to use, especially for young people and young adults. Menthol also interacts with nicotine in the brain to enhance the addictive effects of nicotine, while making it harder for people to quit smoking.

The agency said “modeling studies have estimated a 15% reduction in smoking within 40 years” if menthol cigarettes were banned.

The high rate of use of these cigarettes means that the proposed ban will affect a large part of the smoking population, particularly young adults and racially disadvantaged groups, who are less likely to be able to afford counseling and institutional help. to quit smoking.

The FDA says that in 2019, “there were more than 18.5 million smokers of menthol cigarettes ages 12 and older in the United States.”

Apart from menthol, all other cigarette flavors were banned in the United States in 2009.

How did menthol cigarettes become more popular among black smokers?

According to various advocacy groups, for decades tobacco companies have used “predatory” and “targeted” advertising to lure black consumers to menthol cigarettes, which are harder to quit and more harmful to health.

The US public health agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), states: “Historically, the marketing and promotion of menthol cigarettes has been heavily targeted at African Americans through imagery and advertising messages. culturally appropriate…attempts by the tobacco industry to maintain a positive image among African Americans have included such efforts as supporting cultural events and contributing to minority institutions of higher education, elected officials, civic and community organizations and scholarship programs.

Tobacco companies have historically placed greater amounts of advertising in African American publications, exposing African Americans to more cigarette advertisements than whites.

Efforts have expanded beyond advertising to also include marketing techniques. Also according to the CDC, tobacco companies use “price promotions such as discounts and multi-pack coupons – which are most often used by African Americans and other minority groups, women and young people. – to increase sales”, areas with “large race/ethnic minority populations tend to have more tobacco retailers”, while “menthol products benefit from more storage space at retail outlets in detail of African-American and other minority neighborhoods.

Smoking also hits the community harder than their white counterparts – the CDC says that although “African Americans generally smoke fewer cigarettes and start smoking cigarettes at older ages, they are more likely to die from related diseases. to smoking than white people.

So when the FDA announced its proposed ban on Thursday, the civic organization National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called it a “victory for black America.”

NAACP President Derrick Johnson reportedly told The New York Times, “These products have killed our children, our parents, our brothers, our sisters, and our livelihoods. After battling deadly menthol products for decades, today is a victory for Black America.

Criticism of the proposed ban

Tobacco companies have challenged scientific evidence that menthol cigarettes are more harmful than regular cigarettes. Other critics claimed the ban would result in a significant loss of revenue for the government, while some said it would hurt African Americans more than it helped.

Altria, one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, said “harm reduction, not prohibition, is the best way forward.” “Removing these products from the legal market will push them into unregulated criminal markets that follow no regulations and ignore minimum age laws,” Altria said in a statement.

The Think Tank Tax Foundation claimed that if the ban goes into effect, the federal and state governments together “will lose more than $6.6 billion in the first full year following the ban.”

Some activists have raised concerns that the ban could push black smokers towards “criminalization”. The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement: “There are serious concerns that the ban put in place by the Biden administration will ultimately foster an underground market that is sure to trigger criminal penalties that will disproportionately impact people of color and prioritize criminalization over public health and harm reduction.

Laws governing menthol cigarettes around the world

Brazil was the first country in the world to ban menthol cigarettes in 2012. Canada banned these cigarettes in 2017 and the European Union in May 2020. Although the UK then left the EU, it has also passed the ban. Turkey, Moldova and Ethiopia have also banned menthol cigarettes.

India has not banned the sale of menthol cigarettes.

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Tobacco regulatory laws in India are covered by the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertising and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act 2003 , or COTPA, and include “restrictions on the advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products; ban on smoking in public places; prohibit sales to minors and by minors; and prohibiting the sale of tobacco products within 100 meters of educational establishments, and through the mandatory display of specified pictorial health warnings on all packages of tobacco products.

In 2019, the Center banned electronic cigarettes. Additionally, different states have implemented their own rules prohibiting the consumption of hookahs, including flavored hookahs, in public places.


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