The Biden Administration’s announcement yesterday that the FDA will take action to prohibit menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars is a long-awaited victory that will advance health equity and protect health for all, especially for Black Americans and kids. We celebrate the originators of this movement and those who have been persistent in this long fight — including the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC), the Public Health Law Center, the Center for Black Health & Equity, and Action on Smoking & Health — and the countless other advocates who have worked to reduce the health disparities caused by the tobacco industry.
This is perhaps the biggest action the FDA could take to reduce health disparities. For decades, commercial mentholated tobacco products have escalated the harm caused by tobacco products. The tobacco industry has extensively targeted its marketing for menthol to African American communities, causing disproportionate harm to Black Americans. Menthol cigarettes alone have likely been responsible for more than 10 million extra smokers and 378,000 premature deaths.
While this news is a major victory for commercial tobacco prevention and control advocates, we know that state and local policy change is still as critical as ever. In their response to the FDA decision, Dr. Phil Gardiner and Carol McGruder from AATCLC shared the reality of the challenges that remain to protect Black and all lives from the devastating effects of mentholated tobacco products. It could still take years for the FDA to implement these product standards given the likelihood of a lengthy rulemaking process and delays from possible tobacco industry litigation. In Carol McGruder’s words, it’s important for all tobacco prevention and control advocates to “keep doing what we’ve been doing–enact local legislation, county legislation, state legislation to get mentholated products off the market” until the FDA exerts its regulatory power.
While 274 localities across the United States have placed restrictions on flavored tobacco products since 2019, the majority of these flavor restrictions have excluded menthol. At least 88 localities have successfully placed restrictions on flavored tobacco products that include comprehensive bans on menthol products. Massachusetts led the way when it became the first state in November 2019 to prohibit the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes and e-cigarettes.
Menthol products are easier to start and harder to quit. Getting them and other flavors off the market will help reduce youth tobacco use initiation. While there remains work to do to remove flavors in all tobacco products, removing them from combustible products, the number one cause of preventable death and disease, is a huge step forward for public health, health equity, and the commercial tobacco endgame. We commend the advocates who have worked to advance health equity through policy change in tobacco prevention and control.