FDA Proposes Controversial Ban on Menthol Cigarettes

In a long-awaited and assuredly controversial move, the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday issued its proposal to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.

The plan must be finalized and will undoubtedly be challenged, meaning it could be years before it is implemented, if it gets that far. However, California and Massachusetts have already successfully banned the products statewide.

Tobacco companies will undoubtedly put up a strong fight, but menthol cigarettes have long been a target of advocacy groups. The activists contend that menthol flavored products target minority communities and are partly responsible for the disproportionate health impact of smoking on these demographics.

Menthol flavoring is also blamed for luring younger generations into smoking. Smoking rates in the U.S. are declining, and now menthol cigarettes make up over a third of sales in the country.

Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, called Thursday’s announcement “a huge win for equity, justice, and public health concerns.” Civil rights organizations note that menthol products are heavily marketed towards Black Americans. The FDA specifically reported in its proposal that the ban would save the lives of 92,000 to 238,000 Black smokers, and a national survey in 2018 found 85% of Black smokers choose menthol flavored products.

However, support for the FDA move is far from unanimous in the African American community and its supporters. The ACLU says the move will “disproportionately impact Black and Brown communities” and results in potentially lethal interactions with law enforcement.

The Rev. Al Sharpton has also come out against the proposed new rules, arguing that if they take effect they will “give law enforcement another reason to target Black people.” Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va), who has voted against legislation banning menthol cigarettes, says that products used mostly by “predominantly White or more affluent populations” will not be affected.”

Giving away free loose cigarettes to those under 21 and advertising on college campuses went away with a federal ban in 1964, but that’s when civil rights groups say industry advertising for menthol brands swung heavily towards Black customers. Whatever the outcome, the FDA’s proposal is far away from implementation.