Yesterday, the FDA announced their intention to issue proposed product standards this year eliminating menthol in cigarettes and all flavors in cigars. This action is huge, historic, and overdue. It will save lives, especially Black lives. It is thanks to tireless advocates who have been working towards this for decades, and a result of a recent lawsuit led by the African-American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC) and Action on Smoking and Health to compel the FDA to respond to a citizen petition submitted by the Public Health Law Center, the Center for Black Health and Equity, and AATCLC originally in 2013 after menthol was excluded from the ban on all other flavored in cigarettes in the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act and after the FDA’s own studies concluded based overwhelming scientific evidence that removing menthol would benefit public health.
This is perhaps the biggest action the FDA could take to reduce health disparities. For nearly 100 years, commercial mentholated tobacco products have escalated the harm caused by tobacco products. The tobacco industry has extensively targeted its marketing for menthol to African American communities, causing disproportionate harm to Black Americans. Menthol cigarettes alone have likely been responsible for more than 10 million extra smokers and 378,000 premature deaths.
It is important to note that the product standards would be enforced at the manufacturing and retail level – they will not involve a ban on possession or use.
While this news is a major victory for commercial tobacco prevention and control advocates, state and local policy change is still as critical as ever. In their response to the FDA decision, Dr. Phil Gardiner and Carol McGruder from AATCLC shared the reality of the challenges that remain to protect Black and all lives from the devastating effects of mentholated tobacco products. It could still take years for the FDA to implement these product standards given the likelihood of a lengthy rulemaking process and delays from possible tobacco industry litigation. In Carol McGruder’s words, it’s important for all tobacco prevention and control advocates to “keep doing what we’ve been doing–enact local legislation, county legislation, state legislation to get mentholated products off the market” until the FDA exerts its regulatory power. At least 88 localities have placed restrictions on flavored tobacco products that include comprehensive bans on menthol products. Massachusetts led the way when it became the first state in November 2019 to prohibit the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes and e-cigarettes.
Menthol products are easier to start and harder to quit – getting them and other flavors off the market will help reduce youth tobacco use initiation. While there remains work to do to remove flavors in all tobacco products, removing them from combustible products, the number one cause of preventable death and disease, is a huge step forward for public health, health equity, and the commercial tobacco endgame.