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The Food and Drug Administration announced last week that it would begin the process of banning menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. The move comes after years of public pressure and legal challenges from anti-smoking groups aimed at compelling the FDA to follow through on its own recommendation that menthol cigarettes be banned.
Menthol is a substance that can be derived from mint plants or created synthetically. It was first added to cigarettes in the 1920s, when manufacturers learned that in addition to its flavoring, menthol creates a cooling sensation in the throat that can mask the harshness of smoke. All cigarettes cause cancer, but health experts believe this cooling effect makes menthols especially problematic because it can make it easier for young people to take up smoking and harder for smokers to quit.
The FDA estimates that there are more than 18 million menthol smokers in the U.S. The flavor has been especially popular among Black Americans. Roughly 85 percent of Black smokers prefer menthols, compared to 30 percent of white smokers, thanks in large part to decades of aggressive marketing campaigns from cigarette companies promoting the product in Black communities.
In 2009, Congress prohibited the sale of all flavored cigarettes except menthol. Four years later, the FDA recommended banning menthol as well, but efforts to implement that have so far been bogged down by political pressure and legal fights.
Why there’s debate
Supporters say banning menthols would be a major step toward reducing the number of cigarette-related deaths in the U.S. They argue that removing a more palatable version of cigarettes from the market would both prevent young people from taking up the habit and compel many longtime smokers to quit.
Banning menthols is also seen as a racial justice issue. Advocates say a ban would be a step toward reversing decades of damage caused by predatory marketing to Black communities. “For generations, the tobacco industry has intentionally targeted Black and other communities with marketing of menthol cigarettes, resulting in tobacco-related death and disease as well as health disparities,” Harold Wimmer, president of the American Lung Association, wrote in a statement.
Opponents fear that banning menthols would do little to reduce demand for cigarettes and would likely give rise to a potentially dangerous black market outside the reach of regulators. Others say it would be discriminatory to single out a product preferred by Black people. There are also worries that enforcement of the ban would create more opportunities for police to target Black people, which would ultimately run counter to the racial justice goals of anti-smoking groups.
Despite the FDA’s announcement, menthols won’t be disappearing from store shelves anytime soon. Before a ban can be put in place, the proposal must be drafted in detail, opened for public review and finally approved by the White House. Legal challenges from cigarette manufacturers, which experts say are likely, could delay implementation of the ban even further.
Banning menthols will save Black lives
“Menthol was lumped just in with the other evidences of systemic racism and health injustices that African-American communities have suffered so long. And so to have a victory of this magnitude, where the FDA comes out and says, yes, black lives do matter, yes, we do care about health for black communities, that was very important for us and very moving for us.” — Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of the Center for Black Health & Equity, to PBS NewsHour
A ban would help reverse racial health inequities
“Ending the sale of menthol and all flavored tobacco products is one step we should take to immediately address the health crisis of racism. ... Let’s support Black lives and Black lungs by clearing the market of deadly menthol and flavored tobacco products.” — LaTrisha Vetaw and Zeke McKinney, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Without menthols, fewer people will smoke
“Menthol as a tobacco additive is a problem because it’s a gimmick that works. It numbs the throat and makes tobacco smoke less harsh. Menthol thus makes it easier for kids to start smoking and harder for adults to quit.” — Michael Schwalbe, News & Observer
A menthol ban is long overdue
“The FDA, which has come under attack for dithering on tobacco issues, deserves praise for evaluating the evidence and, albeit belatedly, taking this significant step forward.” — Mark A. Gottlieb and Richard Daynard, Boston Globe
Concerns about a ban fueling discriminatory policing can be addressed
“It would indeed be troubling if law enforcement used a ban on menthol cigarettes as a pretext to target communities of color further, but that is a separate issue better dealt with by criminal justice reform at the state and local level. ... The bigger injustice is allowing tobacco companies to continue to push their deadly product on communities of color.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times
Outright bans don’t work
“Prohibition is a close-your-eyes and bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach to drug policy. Those who support blanket prohibitions of popular substances are wishing on a star that somehow the substance will magically disappear. Did alcohol and marijuana magically disappear during their prohibitions?” — Art Way, Minn Post
Illegal menthol sales would lead to a spike in crime
“Menthol cigarettes are still the preference of many adults who choose to smoke. Banning that product will just push sales out of the stores and create a lucrative illicit market.” — Rich Marianos, CT Mirror
Banning menthols is a step too far
“We should continue to help people quit smoking with education and therapy programs. We should urge smokers to switch to comparatively safer products, like e-cigarettes. And we should discourage and shun the habit. But let’s stop short of making the sellers of menthol cigarettes — and by extension, users — pariahs for their practicing their vice.” — Jack Shafer, Politico
A menthol ban would discriminate against Black people
“It can be tough nowadays to keep up with what is racist and what is not, but I’ll happily admit that I didn’t have ‘ban something black people like because they like it too much’ on my Anti-Racist Bingo card.” — Charles C.W. Cooke, National Review
People should have the right to make their own decisions about smoking
“[Anti-smoking] discourse portrays smokers, particularly black smokers, as passive victims of predatory tobacco companies lacking agency of their own. To give consideration to their liberties would require acknowledging that people smoke for many reasons, including pleasure, and that smokers deserve to be treated as more than just collateral damage in the war against Big Tobacco.” — Jacob Grier, Reason
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