The cooling flavor attracts young smokers and makes it harder to quit.
The Food and Drug Administration faces an April 29 deadline to decide whether to allow menthol cigarettes to remain on the market. To discourage children from starting smoking and to help adults quit, it should ban them. It should also ban menthol and all other flavors except tobacco from e-cigarettes.
The harm that menthol adds to the already injurious practice of smoking has been recognized for many years. In a 2013 review of the science, the FDA concluded it is “likely that menthol cigarettes pose a public health risk above that seen with nonmenthol cigarettes.”
By seeming to cool the throat and soothe the irritation from burning tobacco, menthol makes smoking more palatable. This lures young people — close to half of all kids who smoke begin with menthol cigarettes — and helps to keep adults hooked. From 1980 to 2018, menthol encouraged an extra 10.1 million Americans to become smokers and was responsible for 378,000 extra premature deaths and a total of 3 million life-years lost, a recent study found.
Research has also revealed that menthol increases dependency. Menthol smokers are significantly more likely than other smokers to light up within five minutes of getting up in the morning, and to wake in the night and have a cigarette, studies have shown. Menthol smokers try to quit more often than other smokers do, but succeed less.
Congress banned most cigarette flavors — candy, fruit, chocolate and others — in 2009, but menthol, the most popular one, was left to the FDA to deal with. Twice since then, the agency has given notice of an intention to address menthol in cigarettes, but it still has not acted. For eight years, the agency has neglected to respond to a citizen petition to ban menthol. (One of the groups behind that petition is Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.) Finally last year, the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council sued the FDA, saying it had unreasonably delayed its decision, and now a federal judge in California has given the agency until the end of the month to respond to the petition.
Although this petition has to do with combustible cigarettes, menthol attracts new recruits to vaping as well as smoking, and it is still allowed to be used in e-cigarettes. It should be banned in every form of tobacco use.
Some people have argued that a menthol ban would discriminate against African American smokers because, thanks largely to decades of selective marketing by tobacco companies, they are more likely than other smokers to use menthol cigarettes. While menthols account for a little more than one-third of the total cigarette market, 85% of Black smokers smoke them. A ban, opponents say, might create a new point of friction between African Americans and law enforcement.
It’s also possible, however, that a menthol ban would persuade more African American smokers to quit. After menthol cigarettes were banned in much of Canada, daily menthol smokers began quitting at almost twice the rate of other smokers.
What’s certain is that allowing menthol cigarettes to remain on the market will continue to spur heart disease, respiratory illness, cancer and other health problems that disproportionately afflict Black Americans. It’s no wonder so many African American advocacy groups are calling for a menthol ban.
The FDA should honor their request — and protect the lives of all Americans — by prohibiting the sale of menthol cigarettes.