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FDA announces plans to ban menthol cigarettes

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US health regulators have announced plans to ban menthol cigarettes — but critics argue it could fuel a dangerous black market for the flavored smokes.

The announcement by the Food and Drug Administration Thursday will not lead to any immediate impact, but rather kickstart the years-long rulemaking process.

The FDA has tried before to ban the minty cigarettes but had been thwarted by political interests in both the Obama and Trump administrations.

The regulator said it will also seek a ban on menthol and fruity flavors from low-cost cigars. Both flavored cigars and menthol cigarettes are disproportionately popular with black smokers, the FDA said. 

“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,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting FDA boss, said in a statement.

Flavored cigarettes particularly have irked anti-smoking advocates for years. They say that menthol appeals to younger people and masks the harsh tastes of tobacco, making cigarettes even more addictive.

The FDA cited one study that suggests that a ban would lead an additional 923,000 smokers to quit — including 230,000 Black Americans, in the first 13 to 17 months following the ban. 

In 2009, the FDA banned the sale of all flavored cigarettes except for menthol, a provision reportedly negotiated by lobbyists. In 2013, a citizen petition sought to ban menthol, too, but the agency didn’t take action.

Thursday’s announcement comes after two groups, including an African American advocacy group, sued the FDA last year, alleging that it “unreasonably delayed” responding to the 2013 petition. 

British American Tobacco-owned Reynolds American, which makes one of the leading menthol brands in the US, Newport, said in a statement that it will fight the FDA’s efforts.

“As was true when the FDA first examined menthol in 2013, and as the published literature continues to demonstrate, there is no scientific basis to regulate menthol and non-menthol cigarettes differently,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

“The scientific evidence neither shows a difference in health risks between a menthol and a non-menthol cigarette, nor does it support that menthol cigarettes adversely affect initiation, dependence or cessation.”

But it isn’t just the tobacco industry that is pushing back against the ban. Rich Marianos, a professor at Georgetown University and former assistant director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said a ban would fuel the black market for menthols. 

Marianos said there are already major black markets for the flavored cigarettes in the US, particularly on the East Coast, where people might buy menthols or other cigarettes in low-tax states like Virginia and sell them in New York.

He said it’s become popular among organized criminals because there’s typically little enforcement against the crime and it can be lucrative in bulk.

“A federal ban would put the criminal activity on steroids,” he told The Post. “Prohibition never works. “It does not succeed. It brings in more problems than it’s worth.”

A man smokes a cigarette.
The FDA banned the sale of all flavored cigarettes except for menthol in 2009.
REUTERS

In 2019, Massachusetts became the first state to ban menthol cigarettes. Convenience store owners in Boston asked the state to repeal the ban last year, saying that it sent sales to the black market. 

“These senseless bans are going to create more problems and create a wider gap between police and community where we need to heal that gap,” Marianos said.

Meanwhile, the White House clarified that the FDA’s ban would only apply to manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers — and does not mean it will become a crime to possess menthol cigarettes.

“Let’s be clear here, if implemented these rules affect only commercial activity. And so FDA does not regulate the possession of tobacco products by individuals for personal use,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday aboard Air Force One. “And this rule would not make individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes a crime, nor change enforcement standards.”

Jean-Pierre also acknowledged criticism from Al Sharpton, who has previously said a ban on menthol unfairly targets black smokers.

“We are aware of that and we take that seriously, the concerns that have been raised about discriminatory policing. And so addressing racial bias in policing is a priority,” Jean-Pierre said. “We need legislation to directly address police reform, even as we regulate tobacco industry practices that harm Americans.”

Shares of cigarette-makers mostly dipped in midday trading following the announcement. British American Tobacco and Altria shares were down almost 2 percent, while Philip Morris was up about 0.5 percent. 

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