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  • The FDA may fully ban menthol cigarettes, which they estimate could save 650,000 lives.
  • About one-third of cigarettes sold in the U.S. are menthols.
  • Advocates have been pushing for this ban for decades.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is one step closer to banning menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.

Last week the agency released two proposed rules that would ban menthol and other “characterizing” flavorings in cigarettes. It is expected to have a big impact on two groups–young people and African Americans.

Characterizing flavoring for cigarettes would include flavors like strawberry, grape and fruit punch that can make cigarettes more appealing.

The FDA estimates the ban could help save as many as 650,000 lives over four decades. 

Menthols account for about a third of the cigarettes sold in this country and are the preference for the majority of black smokers.

The ban is something activists have been advocating for over decades.

“I think this is a really significant step for public health that the FDA has taken. One of the strongest steps they’ve taken to reduce tobacco use in years,” said Matthew Wellington, Director of Public Health Campaigns for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

“They’re not only tackling menthol cigarettes, but they’ve taken another step and said we’re also going to take flavored cigars off the market,” he told Healthline. “In 2021, cigars were the second most widely used tobacco product among high schoolers.”

The FDA first announced it would be working on a ban a year ago.

Since then, activists say tobacco companies have stepped up their lobbying efforts against a menthol ban.

“This is only the beginning of the end. It’s not the end,” said 

Phillip Gardiner, DrPh, longtime public health researcher, activist, and co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. 

His group led a coalition that filed suit in 2020 to get the FDA to move on a menthol ban. They cited studies showing that menthol cigarettes are highly addictive and often targeted at African American communities. 

He says the tobacco companies will exploit the regulatory process.

“There’s going to be a long comment period. The tobacco industry will put in literally hundreds of thousands of comments to drag the process out,” he told Healthline.

He says there are several regulatory steps ahead. Even once a final rule is published, it’s followed by another comment period. 

“At which point, we’re sure the industry will sue. They will ask for exemptions for products. So it’s a good step the FDA took, but we’re a long way from being done,” Gardiner added.

We reached out to two of the tobacco companies that sell most of the menthol cigarettes in the U.S. for their reaction to the proposed FDA menthol ban.

British American Tobacco, which acquired R. J. Reynolds, the company that makes Newport cigarettes,  sent us a statement.

It said in part: ”The FDA rulemaking process is a multiyear, multistep process. We are reviewing the details of the proposed regulations and will continue to actively participate in the rulemaking process by submitting science-based comments to the FDA.”

ITG Brands, the U.S. subsidiary of the British company Imperial Tobacco which makes Kool cigarettes, also sent Healthline a statement.

It said in part: ”ITG Brands is well prepared to engage with the FDA to ensure that the agency is guided by the science on this issue and that regulators give due consideration to the numerous unintended consequences that such policies would inevitably bring.”

“Unintended consequences” is a phrase that has resurfaced and is being used by some groups you might not expect to be opposed to a menthol ban.

The civil rights group, “Mothers of the Movement”, recently sent a letter asking the Biden administration to reconsider the menthol ban. The letter says activists fear that banning the cigarettes black smokers prefer would drive menthols onto the black market. 

The letter says they fear the ban would bring more violent encounters with police in Black communities.

The letter is signed by families of slain black men…including the mother of Eric Garner. Garner died in 2014 after being put in a chokehold by a New York City Police officer who was arresting him for selling loose cigarettes.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki countered in a briefing that the ban would go after manufacturers and retailers of menthol cigarettes; it would not criminalize smokers.

The NAACP is supporting the proposed FDA ban.

Gardiner says the “unintended consequences” is an old argument often promoted by people or groups in the Black community that take money from tobacco companies.

And that in all the jurisdictions where a menthol ban is in place, no illicit market has emerged.

“I sympathize with the mothers of these slain young Black men in terms of police brutality. That’s what really needs to stop,” he said. “But let’s not conflate police violence with a public health measure like prohibiting the sale of menthol. It will save hundreds of thousands of Black lives.”