Reviews | Menthol cigarettes should be banned now

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The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday proposed banning menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, sparking criticism that the Biden administration was cracking down on products popular among black people. The critics are wrong; the FDA’s decision was long overdue and it will save many lives, including the lives of many black people.

Menthol cigarettes were, indeed, chosen for a mild treatment. The Tobacco Control Act 2009 banned flavored cigarettes because they appeal to children who are experimenting with smoking for the first time. But, amid concerns from the Congressional Black Caucus, lawmakers excepted menthol cigarettes because of their popularity among black smokers; about 85% of black smokers take puffs of menthol. Yet menthol is a flavor like any other, which makes cigarettes more appealing to young and inexperienced users. The menthol taste disguises the harsh tobacco taste of cigarettes and the soothing properties of menthol limit throat irritation. In other words, menthols are almost perfect entry-level tobacco products. Instead of banning menthols, Congress ordered the FDA to study what to do about them. But the agency moved slowly, and 13 years later nearly 20 million people are still smoking menthols.

Flavored cigars and cigarillos should also have been banned in 2009, along with flavored cigarettes. After flavored cigarettes were banned, these products were natural substitutes for teenagers looking for off-taste tobacco, and their continued presence on the legal market was a huge hole in the country’s anti-youth smoking policy.

Anti-tobacco activists argue that the real bad guys aren’t federal regulators trying to save lives, but the tobacco companies that marketed products like menthol cigarettes to black people in the first place. Despite decades of progress, smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the country, and the black community feels its impact disproportionately. Smoking kills 47,000 black people every year. A new study published in the journal Tobacco Control has found that a ban on menthol in the United States could persuade 1.3 million smokers to quit, including 381,272 black smokers.

Some fear the upcoming FDA ban will increase tense interactions between police and black Americans. But the agency stressed that it would not ban consumers from possessing menthol cigarettes, only distributors from selling them.

Some critics, however, call for further study. Nope; menthol cigarettes have killed large numbers of black people and will continue to kill as long as they are legal for sale. The FDA should finalize its ban as soon as possible.

About Margaret Shaw

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