US Moves to Ban Menthol Cigarettes and Flavored Cigars

The FDA has proposed a ban on menthol cigarettes and cigars of any flavor to curb smoking deaths, but some civil rights activists say it could spawn an underground market that leads to criminal charges against people of color.  

Packs of menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products are seen at a store in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Biden administration on Thursday launched a plan to curb smoking by banning menthol-flavored cigarettes and all cigars that are flavored.  

The Food and Drug Administration says its science-based approach aims to reduce disease and death related to the use of smokable tobacco products. The agency aims to have the ban in effect by next year, after the proposed change undergoes a public comment period.

“Banning menthol—the last allowable flavor—in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products,” acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said in a statement Thursday announcing the plan.

Federal health officials say tobacco products are the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand-smoke exposure.

“With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products,” Woodcock said.

Woodcock said that, “armed with strong scientific evidence” and the full support of the Biden administration, FDA leadership believes the move will set the U.S. on a path toward ending tobacco-related disease and death across the country.  

But the proposed ban is already receiving pushback, and not just from the tobacco industry. 

“At this pivotal moment, as the public demands an end to police violence erupting from minor offenses, we call on the Biden administration to rethink its approach and employ harm reduction strategies over a ban that will lead to criminalization,” Aamra Ahmad, senior legislative counsel with the ACLU, said in a statement about the possible ban. 

Ahmad expressed concerns that potential criminalization over possession of menthol cigarettes could disproportionately impact Black and brown communities.

“As we approach the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd — only a few years removed from the killing of Eric Garner, a Black man killed by NYPD for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes — the racially disparate impact of the criminal legal system has captured the nation’s attention. It is now clear that policies that amount to prohibition have serious racial justice implications,” she said.

Ahmed noted that police encounters with Black citizens over minor offenses have, on several occasions, resulted in a killing.

For Daunte Wright, it was expired tags. George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty by a jury last week, after allegedly using a counterfeit bill.

“There are serious concerns that the ban implemented by the Biden administration will eventually foster an underground market that is sure to trigger criminal penalties which will disproportionately impact people of color and prioritize criminalization over public health and harm reduction,” Ahmed warned.   

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra expressed his approval of the proposed rule-making. He said in a statement that a ban on menthol-flavored cigarettes and cigars with flavor additives would reduce the appeal of tobacco products and promote health equity.

“This science-based decision reflects the Biden administration’s commitment to improve the health of all Americans and to tackle health disparities in our most marginalized communities,” Becerra said. 

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, also commended the FDA’s announcement. 

“Menthol-flavored tobacco is also heavily marketed toward the African American community. Black health and civil rights groups point out that more than 85% of Black smokers use menthols – which have been found by experts to be more addictive – compared to just 29% of white smokers,” Feinstein said in a statement. 

She added, “Simply put, all flavored tobacco products need to be removed from the market. These products are often marketed to attract as many new users as possible and get them hooked on nicotine, disproportionately affecting youth and communities of color. I hope a ban on menthol-flavored cigarettes is just a first step toward banning all flavored tobacco products.” 

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