The Biden government plans to propose a ban on menthol cigarettes, a long-held public health goal of civil rights and anti-tobacco groups that has been repulsed by the tobacco industry for years, according to a federal health official.
For decades, menthol cigarettes have been aggressively marketed to black people in the United States. About 85 percent of black smokers use brands of menthol, including Newport and Kool, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Research shows that menthol cigarettes are more addictive and harder to quit than regular tobacco products.
The F.D.A. Forced to Act within a Deadline – A federal district judge in Northern California ordered the agency to respond to a citizen petition banning menthol by April 29th. However, a ban is unlikely to go into effect anytime soon, as any proposal is likely to result in a lengthy legal battle. The proposal would also include a ban on all mass-produced flavored cigars, including cigarillos, that have become popular with teenagers.
However, the ban would not apply to e-cigarettes, which are seen as a means of smoking cessation for regular menthol cigarettes. Most e-cigarette brands, including Juul, go through an F.D.A. Verification to determine whether they are of sufficient public health benefit to remain in the market.
Details of the proposal were first reported by the Washington Post.
Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of the Center for Black Health and Equity, one of the organizations behind the petition, described the decision as a victory for African Americans and all people of color.
"That took a long time," said Jefferson. "We've been fighting this fight since the 1980s. We told the industry back then that we didn't want these cigarettes in our communities."
Steven Callahan, a spokesman for Altria, owned by Philip Morris, USA, said the company remains opposed to a menthol ban.
"We share the common goal of switching adult smokers from cigarettes to potentially less harmful alternatives, but the ban is not working." Mr. Callahan said. "A far better approach is to help establish a marketplace for F.D.A.-approved non-flammable alternatives that are attractive to adult smokers."
Three years ago the F.D.A. under Dr. Scott Gottlieb, President Trump's first F.D.A. The Commissioner proposed a similar ban on menthol. But the Trump administration resigned after fierce opposition from tobacco state lawmakers, led by Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina.
Pressure to revive a ban had increased since President Biden's election and as the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement exposed further stark racial differences in the country's public health and medical system.
While black smokers smoke less, they are more likely to die of heart attacks, strokes, and other causes related to tobacco use than white smokers, according to federal health statistics.
Matthew L. Myers, president of the Tobacco Free Children Campaign, which was part of the Citizens' Petition, also noted that menthol and other flavors appeal to teenagers.
"Menthol cigarettes are the leading cause of teen smoking in the US," he said. "Eliminating menthol and flavored cigars, which are used by so many children, will do more to reduce tobacco-related diseases in the long run than any action the federal government has ever taken."
Menthol is a substance found in mint plants that can also be synthesized in a laboratory. It creates a cooling feeling in tobacco products and masks the harshness of the smoke, making it more bearable. Decades ago, market research showed it was more attractive to black smokers than white smokers, and cigarette companies began to focus their marketing on black consumers.
Support for a legislative ban has also increased in Congress. Several states and communities, including Massachusetts and California, have their own menthol bans, but many of them are also involved in legal disputes.
The F.D.A. has not yet disclosed details of the proposal, which will have to go through a formal federal regulatory process that may take several years and is likely to face major challenges for the tobacco industry.