The Biden Administration will ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars with new regulations to be issued within the next year — actions that Big Tobacco is expected to battle but which proponents say could have big health benefits for those who have been targeted to buy and use these products.
Smoking is a leading cause of death in this country, and especially among African Americans, with critics saying cigarette makers have exploited communities of color, the poor, and LGBTQ people with flavorings to popularize damaging goods. As the Washington Post reported of the announced plans of the federal Food and Drug Administration:
“[Its] menthol ban would reduce health disparities between white and black smokers. About 85% of African American smokers use menthol cigarettes, three times the rate of white smokers, and their rate of quitting smoking has not declined as quickly as it has for whites. As a result, black smokers suffer disproportionate rates of disease and death. Similarly … the effort to remove menthol and flavorings from small cigars [is] a way to prevent young people from starting the smoking habit and helping them quit. The small cigars are increasingly popular with young smokers; more high school smokers now use small cigars than cigarettes.”
Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting FDA chief, said this in a statement:
“Banning menthol — the last allowable flavor — in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products. With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products.”
Regulators emphasized that their crackdown on menthol and flavorings will affect makers and distributors — it will not target consumers, as critics have claimed. The ACLU and other civil liberties groups have opposed a menthol cigarette and flavored cigar ban as an unfair burden on communities of color, with the group arguing that its enforcement could lead to yet more friction between blacks and police or other authorities. But as the Washington Post reported:
“The FDA will not be enforcing a menthol ban by targeting consumers. Once a ban is put into effect, the government’s role would be to regulate the manufacture, sale, distribution, and importation of cigarettes — to keep them away from consumers in the first place.”
Big Tobacco reacted swiftly to the announcement of the FDA’s planned bans, and experts expect lawsuits soon will be flying. That means that regulators may face a long fight in court, along with resistance in Congress, notably from tobacco-state lawmakers. As the New York Times also reported, quoting Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products:
“The process for banning the sale and manufacturing of menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars is a long one. Two proposals will be drafted in detail, opened to public comments, and then reviewed by the White House. The last time the FDA proposed banning menthol cigarettes, in 2013, it received more than 174,000 public comments. ‘By law, we have to read every single comment that comes in and carefully consider them,’ Mr. Zeller said.”
Health leaders from the black community praised the administration’s planned menthol ban and called on Biden officials to step up, too, campaigns to educate African Americans and others about smoking’s harms — and to get current users unhooked from nicotine, a highly addictive and damaging substance.
Dr. Toni Richards-Rowley — a Tampa-based pediatrician, vice president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a member of her specialists’ group’s health equity and government affairs committees — told USA Today this:
“Big Tobacco for the past 60 years has really targeted the African American community. This is a problem. The targeting of children, and certainly black children, with a very addictive product creates adults who are addicted to menthol cigarettes. The health disparities that result from that are extraordinary.”
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the significant injury that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by defective and dangerous products, notably the perilous wares peddled by Big Tobacco.
Cigarette smoking, federal officials report, is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. It caused in pre-pandemic times more than 480,000 deaths each year in the United States. Smoking caused in more normal times more deaths each year than these causes combined: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), illegal drug use, alcohol use, vehicle injuries, and firearm-related incidents.
Smoking causes about 9 out of 10 of all lung cancer deaths, experts say. More women die from lung cancer each year than from breast cancer. Smoking causes 8 out of 10 of all deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). And it increases risk for death from all causes in men and women.
If you don’t smoke or vape now, please don’t start. And if you do, please talk with loved ones and your doctor about ways to stop. You’ll soon feel better, and your health likely will improve. You may find more money in your wallet or purse, too, especially with the average retail price for a pack of smokes runs at $6.65 a pack, or $688 annually for a two-pack-per-week smoker.
We’ve already snuffed out many flavorings aimed to get kids hooked on vaping. We have got a lot of work to do to extinguish the nasty, unhealthy, and expensive habits of smoking and vaping.