Posted on April 27, 2021

FDA Weighs Ban on Menthol Cigarettes, Which Disproportionately Addict — and Kill — Black Americans

Laura Reiley, Washington Post, April 20, 2021


As Black Americans continue to suffer disproportionate health consequences of addiction to menthol cigarettes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this month must respond to a court order demanding it take a position on whether to ban the product.

The FDA has long targeted menthol cigarettes for a regulatory crackdown amid warnings from doctors and other public health experts that the products are easier to start smoking, harder to quit and cause outsize harm to African Americans.

But the FDA has held back, because of opposition from the tobacco industry, which spends tens of millions of dollars a year on lobbying and argues menthol cigarettes have not been shown to be more toxic than regular ones. Opposition has also come from GOP and Democratic officials as well as civil rights groups and leaders, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Al Sharpton, who have said that banning menthol would risk police targeting Black Americans for selling illegal cigarettes.

Now, the agency must respond by April 29 to a citizen petition — a unique regulatory tool that allows the public to request the FDA consider policy changes — demanding menthol cigarettes be banned.

Advocates of the ban cite a litany of health effects. Only 29 percent of White smokers choose menthol, as opposed to 85 percent of African American smokers, according to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health, fueled by more than half a century of Big Tobacco aggressively marketing them specifically to Black Americans.

Although Black Americans smoke less than White Americans in general, Black men have the highest rates of lung cancer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The No. 1 cause of preventable death among African Americans, tobacco claims 45,000 Black lives each year.

Carol McGruder, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, an advocacy group that has also sued to force the FDA to take action on menthol, says menthol cigarette bans have been bargained out of tighter tobacco and vaping legislation for more than a decade, but that the time has come for the FDA to take action.

“For years, this has been an underdog issue that wasn’t on the radar, but over time people have become educated and engaged. We are suing the FDA now to compel them to do what they were charged to do: to take menthol off the market,” McGruder said. The lawsuit alleged that the FDA had unreasonably delayed issuing a final response to the citizen petition.

The FDA said the petitioners and the agency agreed to extend the original deadline of Jan. 29 for a response so the agency could consider more recent studies conducted after the original citizen petition was submitted.


However, some antismoking activists worry that momentum at the agency won’t be sufficient because the Biden administration does not yet have a permanent FDA commissioner. Janet Woodcock, who until recently ran the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research and has been on the FDA’s Nicotine Steering Committee, serves as acting commissioner.

Scott Gottlieb, who as FDA commissioner during the Trump administration in 2018 led the last failed effort to ban menthol, says the science about menthol cigarettes should outweigh any arguments about a ban targeting a specific community.

“The science was strong then and is even stronger now,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Just because an addiction crisis disproportionately impacts one sector, it doesn’t mean that it’s racist to respond to that.”


“I argue menthol is the ultimate candy flavoring that helps the poison go down easier,” said Phillip Gardiner, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and recently retired from the University of California Office of the President’s Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program. “It is by definition an anesthetic, allowing for deeper inhalation, and the more nicotine and toxins you take in, the more addicted you become.”

A recent report in the Tobacco Control journal estimated that menthol cigarettes were responsible for 10.1 million extra smokers and 378,000 premature deaths in the United States between 1980 and 2018. Gardiner points to studies that suggest menthol activates more nicotine receptors in the brain, enhances the penetration of nicotine and keeps nicotine in the body longer, adding that “all these things add up to a greater level of addiction and impact on the body.”


The tobacco industry has sponsored African American-focused community and music events such as the Kool Jazz Festival, and Gardiner says, marketed menthol cigarettes specifically to African Americans. In February 1989, Reynolds debuted Uptown cigarettes to coincide with Black History Month; in 1995, Menthol X launched with images linked to Malcolm X; in 1997, Camel marketed a menthol “Smooth Joe Camel” in Black communities.

Researchers have found tobacco companies offer cheaper pricing and better deals on menthol cigarettes in Black neighborhoods.


In 2009, Congress passed legislation that gave the FDA power to ban menthol tobacco products. The agency proceeded to study the issue, concluding in 2011 that the “removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States.” In 2013, the FDA released a report finding that menthol cigarettes lead to increased smoking initiation among teens and young adults, greater addiction and decreased success in quitting smoking.

But the FDA shied away from action. {snip}


Some prominent civil rights activists have strenuously objected to menthol cigarette bans, concerned that a ban would spawn a black market for menthol-flavored tobacco products and increase overly aggressive policing in Black neighborhoods. Sharpton, who opposes a menthol ban, points to tobacco as a common theme in recent conflicts between citizens and police that have led to African American deaths.

Eric Garner died in police custody in New York after being approached for selling loose cigarettes illegally; Michael Brown was killed after being suspected of stealing cigars. George Floyd was killed by police responding to a claim that he tried to use a counterfeit bill to purchase cigarettes. Sandra Bland died in a jail cell after being arrested when she refused to put out a cigarette during a traffic stop.

“We do not think kids should be put in jail or given a ticket for selling menthol,” Sharpton told The Post. “You’re going to give the police another reason to engage our people?”

Detractors have noted that Sharpton’s civil rights group, the National Action Network, has held events sponsored by R.J. Reynolds, which makes Newport cigarettes, the most popular menthol cigarette and the No. 2 U.S. cigarette brand overall.