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Activists cheer FDA plan to ban menthol cigarettes and cigars

A "Smoke Free" sign in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Jim Levulis

At the end of April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced proposed product standards to prohibit menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes and prohibit all characterizing flavors, other than tobacco, in cigars. Activist groups are cheering the move.

The FDA claims the new standards have the potential to significantly reduce disease and death from tobacco use, the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., by limiting youth experimentation and addiction, and increasing the number of smokers who quit.

A 2021studyfound that menthol cigarettes were responsible for 10.1 million additional smokers and 378,000 premature deaths in the U.S. from 1980 to 2018.

Carol McGruder, Founding Member and Co-Chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council says that for more than 60 years, the tobacco industry has deliberately targeted Black communities.

"This is a historical action at the FDA finally, it is moving and, and taking steps to protect the lives of African Americans," said McGruder."

McGruder says back in the 1950s, less than 10% of Black smokers used menthol cigarettes. Today, that number is 85%.

McGruder said "That’s because of the decades of predatory targeting and seeding of these addictive substances in our communities, so the fact that the FDA is finally going through the rulemaking process to take mentholated, tobacco products and little cigars and cigarillos to cheap products that also inundate Black and Brown communities off the market is very significant. “

Matthew Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, says the FDA’s move will have a greater impact on reducing health disparities than any other action that the agency has taken.

"This is something we know we can change if FDA follows through," Myers said. "I'd also like to add New York state itself could move forward and ban the sale of menthol cigarettes and not wait for the for FDA."

Katie McMahon, Policy Principal at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, says the disparities in the use of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars are not by accident, but by tobacco industry design.

“That's why we think prohibiting menthol in cigarettes and flavors and cigars can go a long way to reduce the disproportionate burden of death and disease that tobacco has had on these communities in particular for Black Americans, LGBTQ Americans and Americans with limited income who've really been targeted by big tobacco with these products,” said McMahon.

Again, McGruder: “This is the beginning of the process. It's not magic. And this is not the end. The FDA is now committed, there'll be comments, there'll be periods for people to have input. But in the interim, in the meantime, we still want cities, counties and states to continue enacting local legislation to take these products off the market. And then when the FDA finally gets through with this process, many of our communities will already be protected. And we'll have already started the process of getting these products off the market,” McGruder said.

Tobacco company Altria responded to a request for comment via email:

“We believe harm reduction, not prohibition, is the better path forward. Taking these products out of the legal marketplace will push them into unregulated, criminal markets that don’t follow any regulations and ignore minimum age laws. We will continue to engage in this long-term regulatory process.”

The FDA has launched a 60-day public comment period on the proposal.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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