By Matthew Perrone
U.S. health regulators pledged again Thursday to try to ban menthol cigarettes, this time under pressure from African American groups to remove the mint flavor popular among Black smokers.
The Food and Drug Administration has attempted several times to get rid of menthol but faced pushback from Big Tobacco, members of Congress and competing political interests in both the Obama and Trump administrations. Any menthol ban will take years to implement and will likely face legal challenges from tobacco companies.
Thursday’s announcement is the result of a lawsuit filed by anti-smoking and medical groups last summer to force the FDA to finally make a decision on menthol, alleging that regulators had “unreasonably delayed” responding to a 2013 petition seeking to ban the flavor.
The deadline for the agency’s response was Thursday. The FDA said it aims to propose regulations banning the flavor in the coming year.
The action would also ban menthol and fruity flavors from low-cost, small cigars, which are increasingly popular with young people, especially Black teens.
“We will save save hundreds of thousands of lives and prevent future generations from becoming addicted smokers,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, the FDA's acting commissioner.
She cited research estimates that banning menthol would prevent 630,000 tobacco-related deaths over 40 years, more than a third of them among African Americans.
Menthol is the only cigarette flavor that was not banned under the 2009 law that gave the FDA authority over tobacco products, an exemption negotiated by industry lobbyists. The act did, though, instruct the agency to continue to weigh banning menthol.
The flavor’s persistence has infuriated anti-smoking advocates, who point to research that menthol’s numbing effect masks the harshness of smoking, likely making it easier to start and harder to quit.
The mint-flavored cigarettes are overwhelmingly used by young people and minorities, particularly Black smokers, 85% of whom smoke menthols. That compares to about a third of white smokers.
“The science is there, the data is there, so why are these products still on the market?” said Carol McGruder of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council.
Her group sued along with Action on Smoking and Health, the American Medical Association and the National Medical Association, which represents Black physicians.
For decades, companies focused menthol marketing and promotions on Black communities, including sponsoring music festivals and neighborhood events. Company documents released via 1990s litigation also show companies viewed menthol cigarettes as good “starter” products because they were more palatable for teenagers .
“There was a specific, intentional focus on creating the next generation of smokers by making menthol cigarettes available in those communities,” said Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics’ group on minority health and equity.