The Food and Drug Administration proposed Thursday to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, eliciting criticism that the Biden administration was cracking down on products popular among Black people. The critics are wrong; the FDA’s move was long overdue, and it will save many lives, including many Black people’s lives.
Menthol cigarettes have, indeed, been singled out — for light treatment. The 2009 Tobacco Control Act banned flavored cigarettes because they appeal to children first experimenting with smoking. But, amid concerns from the Congressional Black Caucus, lawmakers excepted menthol cigarettes because of their popularity among Black smokers; some 85 percent of Black smokers puff on menthols. Yet menthol is a flavor like any other, making cigarettes more appealing to young and inexperienced users. The minty taste disguises cigarettes’ harsh tobacco flavor, and menthol’s soothing properties limit throat irritation. In other words, menthols are almost perfect gateway tobacco products. Instead of banning menthols, Congress ordered the FDA to study what to do about them. But the agency moved slowly and, 13 years later, nearly 20 million people continue to smoke menthols.
Flavored cigars and cigarillos should also have been banned in 2009, along with flavored cigarettes. After the flavored cigarette ban, these products were natural substitutes for teenagers seeking tobacco without the off-putting taste, and their continued presence on the legal market amounted to a huge hole in the nation’s anti-youth-tobacco policy.
Antismoking activists argue that the real villains are not federal regulators trying to save lives, but the tobacco companies that marketed products such as menthol cigarettes to Black people in the first place. Despite decades of progress, smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death in the country, and the Black community disproportionately feels the impact. Smoking kills an astonishing 47,000 Black people every year. A new study in the journal Tobacco Control found that a U.S. menthol ban could persuade 1.3 million smokers to quit, including 381,272 Black smokers.
Some fear that the FDA’s forthcoming ban would increase tense interactions between police and Black Americans. But the agency emphasized that it would not ban consumers from possessing menthol cigarettes, only distributors from selling them.
Some critics nevertheless call for yet more study. No; menthol cigarettes have killed huge numbers of Black people and will continue killing as long as their sale is legal. The FDA should finalize its ban as quickly as possible.
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