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Health activists say tobacco companies have targeted Black communities with promotions for menthol cigarettes. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • The Food and Drug Administration is proposing a ban on menthol cigarettes.
  • Activists in Black communities support the move, saying tobacco companies have targeted African American neighborhoods in their menthol cigarette campaigns.
  • Activists say menthol cigarettes are popular in Black communities and have created serious health issues.

Organizers of this year’s “No Menthol Sunday” on May 16 have something new to talk about on this annual day of observance when the faith community spreads awareness about the dangers of menthol tobacco in Black communities.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced it will ban both menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.

“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,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting FDA commissioner, said in a statement.

Phillip Gardiner, the co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC) and a public health researcher, has pushed for this action for decades.

“It is a victory for tobacco control generally… and especially for African Americans who use menthol cigarettes disproportionately and who die disproportionately from tobacco-related disease,” Gardiner told Healthline.

In 2013, the Public Health Law Center and its allies sent a citizen petition to the FDA, calling on the agency to prohibit menthol in cigarettes.

When the agency did not act, the AATCLC took the lead in filing a lawsuit last year, citing the agency’s “unreasonable delay.” The court gave the FDA until April 29 to respond.

In its response, the FDA said there are more than 18 million smokers who use menthol cigarettes. Among Black smokers, nearly 85 percent smoke menthols, compared to 30 percent of white smokers.

The FDA said a Canadian study suggests that banning menthol in the United States could lead 930,000 smokers, including 230,000 African Americans, to quit within the first 13 to 17 months after a ban goes into effect.

If those numbers held, a menthol ban could have a big impact on the tobacco industry.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says menthol cigarettes make up about a third of all cigarettes sold in the United States.

Two of the leading brands are Newport, a product from the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, and Kool, from ITG Brands, the U.S. subsidiary of the British company Imperial Tobacco.

In response to the FDA announcement, R. J. Reynolds spokesperson Kaelan Hollon sent Healthline a statement saying in part: “As was true when the FDA first examined menthol in 2013, and as the published literature continues to demonstrate, there is no scientific basis to regulate menthol and nonmenthol cigarettes differently. Reynolds will evaluate any proposed regulation and will participate in the rule-making process by submitting robust, science-based evidence.”

ITG Brands sent Healthline a statement saying the FDA announcement was “disappointing but not unexpected.”

The statement went on to say: “We believe the rule-making process will reveal that there is no scientific evidence to support a federal menthol and flavor ban. We are hopeful that the FDA will follow the law and prioritize sound policy and science over political pressure.”

Advocates of a menthol ban say the additive to these cigarettes is highly addictive.

“Menthol is the ultimate candy flavor. It helps the poison go down easier,” said Gardiner. “It is by definition an anesthetic that has a numbing, cooling sensation. The more nicotine you take in, the more you become addicted, and the harder it is to quit.”

Gardiner and other public health groups accuse the tobacco companies of targeting Black communities for decades using “predatory marketing.”

Gardiner said the tobacco companies have held lucrative promotions in Black communities offering cheaper menthol cigarettes. The tobacco industry has also given money to Black universities, theaters, and political groups.

“They’ve been throwing money around. They went out of their way to make it a Black cigarette and, unfortunately, Black people have paid for it with their lives,” he said.

Dr. Samali Lubega, is the associate medical director of the LifeLong East Oakland Health Center in California. The center offers a tobacco treatment program.

She calls menthol cigarette smoking a health equity issue in Black communities.

“One of the most surprising things we’ve been seeing and hearing about is how this is playing out among our youth,” Lubega told Healthline.

She said young people have said once vaping was banned, some of them turned to menthol cigarettes.

“That’s a very scary proposition that they might become dependent on menthol cigarettes as an alternative,” Lubega said.

Here’s an example of why she believes a ban could work.

Lubega said one of her patients who was trying to quit menthol cigarettes had turned to smoking flavored cigars. After the city of Oakland banned menthol cigarettes last year, he told her it was getting harder to find them.

“I told him the FDA is planning on a menthol ban and asked him what that would mean for him,” she said. “He told me he would just have to quit. ‘I’m tired of chasing down cigarettes and cigars. That would seal the deal.’”

Experts say the ban won’t come easy or soon.

It could take the FDA up to a year to write the rule. Then it will be subject to public hearings, debate, and testimony.

After that, the rule would likely be rewritten.

“We’re talking about a process somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 months to 3 years,” Gardiner said. “The tobacco industry will find a reason to sue, so we know this fight is a long way from being over.”

In the meantime, he and other advocates encourage activists to work for menthol bans at the state and local levels.

“We can’t take our foot off the gas. Yes, this is a major victory, but the fight is just intensifying now,” he said.