United States moves to ban sale of menthol cigarettes

Experts believe that the measure could save hundreds of thousands of lives and also prevent addiction in young people

Packets of menthol cigarettes at a store in San Francisco.
Packets of menthol cigarettes at a store in San Francisco.Jeff Chiu (AP)

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed on Thursday new product standards to ban menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes and prohibit all characterizing flavors – other than tobacco – in cigars. The initiative seeks to significantly reduce disease and death from tobacco consumption, which is the leading cause of preventable death in the US. According to the FDA, models suggest that prohibiting menthol cigarettes could lead to an estimated 15% reduction in smoking within 40 years.

“The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in a press release issued by the FDA on Thursday. “Additionally, the proposed rules represent an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.”

In 2019, there were more than 18.5 million current menthol cigarette smokers ages 12 and older in the US, with particularly high rates of use by youth, young adults, and African American and other racial and ethnic groups. According to a 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 85% of Black smokers preferred menthol cigarettes. According to the FDA, studies show that banning menthol could prevent between 92,000 and 238,000 smoking-attributable deaths among the Black population over 40 years, and up to 654,000 overall.

Menthol is a mint-flavored additive that reduces irritation and harshness from smoking. This increases the appeal of smoking and makes menthol cigarettes easier to use, especially for teenagers and young adults just starting the habit. But menthol also interacts with nicotine in the brain to enhance the addictive effects of nicotine The combination of menthol’s taste, sensory effects and addictiveness increase the likelihood that young people who start smoking menthol cigarettes will progress to regular use. Menthol also makes it difficult for people to quit smoking.

The proposed ban on menthol follows the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which banned all characteristic flavors – apart from tobacco and menthol – in cigarettes. The measure is part of the US government’s reignited Cancer Moonshot program, which aims to reduce the death rate from cancer by at least 50% over the next 25 years. Approximately 30% of all cancer deaths in the United States are caused by smoking.

“The authority to adopt tobacco product standards is one of the most powerful tools Congress gave the FDA and the actions we are proposing can help significantly reduce youth initiation and increase the chances that current smokers quit,” said FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf in the FDA press release. “Through the rulemaking process, there’s an important opportunity for the public to make their voices heard and help shape the FDA’s ongoing efforts to improve public health.”

After tightening restrictions on electronic cigarettes, the FDA is now preparing to face off against the powerful tobacco industry. As federal officials put the finishing touches on the proposed rules on Thursday, dozens of lobbyists were meeting with White House advisers to try to stop the initiative, which will cost the industry billions of dollars in lost sales.

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