A US ban on menthol cigarettes that has been in the works for years will be finalized in the next few months.
The Food and Drug Administration will release its official plan to phase out minty tobacco products ‘in the coming months’, setting the policy up to be implemented in 2024.
The ban is a long time coming in the eyes of anti-tobacco activists who argue that menthol cigarettes are a gateway into addiction for young people.
A similar argument has been made against fruity-flavored vape devices, which studies increasingly show carry many of the same health risks as normal cigarettes.
Menthol cigarettes make up a fraction of total cigarette sales in the US, but they have hooked a disproportately high rate – 85 percent – of black smokers
The FDA has been considering regulations for menthol cigarettes – which make up a 40 percent share of all sales in the country – for more than a decade.
The flavoring masks the taste of tobacco that might not be appealing to all users, especially children, and enhances the effects of nicotine on the brain, making them want to smoke more.
In a statement to DailyMail.com, an FDA spokesperson said: ‘Consistent with the administration’s commitment to advancing the final tobacco product standard on menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes, the FDA aims to complete work on this rule in the coming months.’
The FDA had initially intended to work out the details of the ban first announced last April by the end of this month.
It first announced that it would ban menthol cigarettes in April 2022 in what would be its most consequential regulatory move against Big Tobacco since 2009 when Congress banned all flavors in cigarettes – save for menthol.
But its self-imposed end-of-August deadline has come and gone and public health groups are frustrated.
Dr Jesse M. Ehrenfeld, American Medical Association President, said: ‘We are disappointed that the FDA has yet to implement a rule banning menthol-flavored cigarettes… We implore the FDA to move swiftly to remove these harmful products from the market once and for all and keep them out of the hands of our nation’s youth—their health and well-being must be the first priority.’
Meanwhile, Dr Phillip Gardiner, co-founder of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council said: ‘The FDA is dragging their feet again. They should become part of the solution and not continue to be part of the problem; Black Lives Matter, Black Lives are at Stake!’
This is not the first time that FDA tobacco regulators have been slammed for delays.
In 2018, the agency was sued by a cadre of public health groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and more, for its ‘failure’ to crack down on flavored e-cigarette makers whose advertising targeted children.
The following year, a federal judge sided with the public health field in ruling that the agency had shirked its responibilities by delaying the reviews of thousands of applications from vape manufacturers looking to sell their products.
It was not until this spring that the FDA showed signs of catching up by issuing over 6,000 product marketing denials.
Flavored e-cigarettes can hook children, especially children who are naive to traditional cigarettes and how they taste, with just a few days of regular puffing.
Just as fruity and sweet flavors like creme brulee and strawberry lemonade mask the less appealing tobacco taste, menthol flavoring has a similar effect.
And while menthol cigarette sales account for a minority of the total number of packs sold in the US, a disproportionately large portion of users – 85 percent – are black, compared with 30 percent of white smokers.
Moreover, half of adult smokers in the US got hooked on nicotine thanks to smoking menthols as teenagers.
Tobacco use among 11 to 18-year-olds has risen by almost a quarter compared to last year, estimates suggest. The CDC warns, however, against the comparison because in 2021 the surveys had to be done from home due to the pandemic. This may have affected the results
Bans in individual states including Calfornia and Massachusetts may serve as a litmus test for how the federal government could institute a broader one.
In 2019, Massachusetts became the first state to implement an all-out ban on flavored tobacco products including flavors in menthols and e-cigarettes which led to an overall decrease in cigarette sales.
Researchers from the American Cancer Society also concluded that the ban led to the state smoking rate to fall by one percentage point more compared to states without a ban.
Still, Massachusetts law enforcement has seen an illicit market emerge for the banned products. The state’s Multi-Agency Illegal Tobacco Task Force for Massachusetts said in its annual report out in February that high taxes coupled with the flavor ban has encouraged smuggling of tobacco products across states.
The report said: ‘the Task Force’s enforcement actions had revealed a disproportionate amount of smuggling activity involving [other tobacco products (OTP)], especially smokeless tobacco, relative to OTP’s share of the overall Massachusetts tobacco market.
‘The Commonwealth’s high tax rates on OTP relative to other states provide smugglers an incentive to import such products from low-tax states and sell them to in-state buyers willing to illegally evade payment of the applicable Massachusetts tobacco excise.’
The rise of a new black market was not the only concern. Civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union the Drug Policy Alliance, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have warned that a menthol ban could lead to greater arrests and incarceration rates in the black community.
The groups said in a joint letter to the federal government in 2021: ‘A menthol cigarette ban would disproportionately impact communities of color, result in criminalization of the market, and exacerbate mass incarceration.
‘In the end, tobacco policy will no longer be the responsibility of regulators regulating, but police policing. Our experience with alcohol, opioid, and cannabis prohibition teaches us that that is a policy disaster waiting to happen, with Black and other communities of color bearing the brunt.’