WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. government will unveil its long-awaited plan Thursday to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, which have been disproportionately priced by black smokers and other minorities.
Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf previewed the announcement in his testimony to Congress, saying the proposal would reduce illness and death by helping current smokers quit and preventing younger ones from starting. .
Menthol accounts for more than a third of cigarettes sold in the US, and black smokers and youth overwhelmingly prefer the mint flavor.
The FDA has repeatedly tried to get rid of menthol, but faced pushback from Big Tobacco, members of Congress, and competing political interests under Democratic and Republican administrations.
The agency has come under legal pressure to issue a decision after anti-tobacco and civil rights groups sued the FDA for “unreasonably” delaying action on earlier requests to ban menthol. The cooling effect of menthol has been shown to mask throat scratchiness when smoking, making it easier to start and harder to quit.
The FDA will also seek to ban menthol and dozens of overly sweet and fruity flavors from little cigars, which are increasingly popular with young people, especially black teens.
The agency’s proposals on cigarettes and cigars will only be early drafts. The FDA will take comments before issuing final rules, which could then face years of legal challenges from tobacco companies.
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. However, the law instructed the agency to continue to consider a ban.
Last April, the Biden administration pledged to try to ban menthol within a year, responding in part to African-American groups that say menthol has led to lower rates of quitting and higher rates of death among blacks. . Menthols are used by 85% of black smokers.
“Black Americans are disproportionately dying from heart disease, lung cancer and stroke,” said Phillip Gardiner of the Black Tobacco Control Leadership Council. “Menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars are the main vectors of those diseases in the Black and Latino communities, and have been for a long time.”
In 2020, Gardiner’s group and several others sued to force the FDA to make a decision on the ban.
The FDA made several efforts to begin phasing out menthol under the Obama and Trump administrations, but had never previously released a formal roadmap for how the process would work.
“This is the first time there’s been support from an administration,” said Mitch Zeller, who recently retired after nine years leading the FDA’s tobacco center. “If these rules are finalized, they become the law of the land and it becomes illegal to sell menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.”
In recent weeks, dozens of interest groups, for and against the ban, have met with Biden administration officials to try to influence the proposed rule, which would eliminate billions in tobacco sales.
For decades, tobacco companies focused menthol advertising and promotions on black communities, sponsoring music festivals and neighborhood events. Industry documents released through litigation show that companies viewed menthol cigarettes as a good “starter product” because they were more palatable to teens.
The removal of menthol would be a huge blow to tobacco companies, including Marlboro maker Altria and Reynolds American, which sells leading menthol brands Newport and Kool. With smoking slowly declining, tobacco companies have diversified into alternative products, including e-cigarettes and tobacco pouches. But those companies still account for a small portion of industry sales.
More than 12% of Americans smoke cigarettes, with rates nearly even between black and white populations.
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