Barack Obama has tried and failed.
Donald Trump’s administration did the same from the start.
Now Joe Biden is taking on Big Tobacco with his proposal to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.
It’s a commendable endeavor, but don’t expect a win anytime soon. RJ Reynolds calls Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a “special friend.” Even if the Biden administration’s effort ultimately succeeds in Congress, it will be argued in court for years to come.
This, despite the science showing that a ban on menthol cigarettes would be one of the best things that could happen to improve the health of Americans. This doubles for blacks and adolescents. The tobacco industry has used targeted menthol cigarette advertising for decades to attract black and teen smokers with devastating results.
FDA Acting Commissioner Dr Janet Woodcock said research estimates that a menthol ban would prevent 630,000 tobacco-related deaths over 40 years, with blacks accounting for more than a third of those deaths.
Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death among blacks, claiming an estimated 45,000 deaths each year. White and black Americans have roughly the same percentage of smokers (just under 15%). But black people are much more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes and would benefit greatly from the aroma removal.
The other group that would benefit would be teenagers. A 2019 Centers for Disease Control study showed that about half of high school smokers use menthol cigarettes.
An Ohio man, Lloyd “Spud” Hughes, came across the recipe for menthol cigarettes in 1924 when he stored his cigarettes in a box containing the menthol crystals intended to cure his sore throat. Menthol, found naturally in mint and peppermint plants, reduces the harshness of smoking and the irritation of nicotine, making cigarettes more attractive to smokers.
Today, the tobacco industry generates around $ 100 billion in revenue per year, with menthol cigarettes accounting for about a third of those sales.
Obama came closest to winning a ban on sales of menthol cigarettes. He supported the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act and signed it in 2009. The legislation gave the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco. He then worked with Congress on a measure to ban all tobacco flavored products, including menthol cigarettes. But Big Tobacco has succeeded in its fight to exclude menthol products.
In 2018, Trump’s FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb pushed for a ban on menthol cigarettes, noting that data showed a 78% increase in e-cigarette use among high school students. But North Carolina Senator Richard Burr rejected scientific studies and ultimately convinced the Trump administration to halt its efforts. Burr’s two sons work for RJ Reynolds and Altria, who owns Philip Morris.
Given the uncertainty of Biden’s efforts, it is all the more important that California and its counties and cities continue their efforts to ban flavored tobacco products. In 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill banning the sale of most flavored tobacco products, including menthol. But the tobacco industry has collected enough signatures to submit a voting measure to voters in 2022.
More than 100 cities and counties in California have adopted restrictions on sales of flavored tobacco products, including counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz. San Jose City Council will consider a similar ban later this year.
Smoking kills approximately 40,000 Californians each year. Menthol cigarettes are a gateway to nicotine addiction that kills black smokers and increases teens into this deadly habit. A total ban on menthol products cannot come too soon.