F.D.A. Announces Plan to Ban Menthol Cigarettes and Flavored Cigars

Agency leaders say the move is a science-based approach to curbing addiction and will save hundreds of thousands of lives over time.

The menthol flavor, the Food and Drug Administration says, makes it easier for those trying their first cigarette to become addicted and then tougher to quit.
Credit...Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday announced its long-awaited plan to ban the last flavor still allowed in cigarettes — menthol — and also said it would ban all flavors of mass-produced cigars, which are popular among youths. The ban would apply only to sales, manufacturing and imports — not personal possession.

“Together, these actions represent powerful, science-based approaches that will have an extraordinary public health impact,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, the F.D.A.’s acting commissioner, said in a statement on the agency’s website. “We believe these actions will launch us on a trajectory toward ending tobacco-related disease and death in the U.S.”

The menthol flavor, the agency says, makes it easier for those trying their first cigarette to become addicted and then tougher to quit. The current annual death toll from smoking-related diseases in the United States stands at about 480,000, with Black Americans disproportionately affected.

Since the 1950s, menthol cigarettes have been aggressively marketed to Black smokers in the United States. Roughly 85 percent of Black smokers now use Newport, Kool and other menthol products, according to the F.D.A.

Although the national rate of smoking has declined, from about 42 percent in the 1960s to roughly 14 percent today, the percentage of Black Americans who have successfully quit is less than that of non-Hispanic white smokers, the agency said.

“For far too long, certain populations have been targeted and disproportionately impacted by tobacco companies,” Mitch Zeller, director of the F.D.A.’s Center for Tobacco Products, said in a news conference on Thursday morning.

According to the F.D.A., one study found that a ban on menthol cigarettes could potentially save 633,000 lives by 2050.

The process for banning the sale and manufacturing of menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars is a long one. Two proposals will be drafted in detail, opened to public comments and then reviewed by the White House. The last time the F.D.A. proposed banning menthol cigarettes, in 2013, it received more than 174,000 public comments.

“By law, we have to read every single comment that comes in and carefully consider them,” Mr. Zeller said.

Public health experts, who have been pushing for a menthol ban for many years, celebrated the news.

“We are thrilled that the F.D.A. is taking this important step to protect all citizens, but especially African-Americans, from the deadly impacts of menthol,” said Kelsey Romeo-Stuppy, managing attorney for Action on Smoking and Health, a tobacco control organization and a plaintiff in the lawsuit that helped lead to the proposed ban on flavored cigarettes and cigars. The plaintiffs sued the F.D.A. last year for inaction on menthol.

The other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, the American Medical Association and the National Medical Association. The lawsuit was intended in part to nudge forward a citizen petition to ban menthol, filed in 2013 by the Public Health Law Center and other public health organizations.

The tobacco industry and its allies were quick to criticize the F.D.A.’s plan. In emailed statements, both R.J. Reynolds, which makes Newport, the top-selling menthol brand in the United States, and Altria, which produces several menthol varieties, made it clear that they would not sit back and wait for a ban that would devastate much of their business in the United States.

“The published science does not support regulating menthol cigarettes differently from nonmenthol,” said Kaelan Hollon, a spokeswoman for R.J. Reynolds. “The scientific evidence neither shows a difference in health risks between a menthol and a nonmenthol cigarette, nor does it support that menthol cigarettes adversely affect initiation, dependence or cessation.”

In fact, hours after word leaked of the F.D.A. proposal, an organization calling itself Law Enforcement Action Partnership sent out a news release noting its opposition to the menthol ban. The organization’s tax form shows its largest donor for 2019 was Reynolds American Inc. Services Company, which gave the group $450,000, more than a third of its reported total contributions and grants for the year.

The group invoked an old and discredited tobacco industry argument: that efforts to ban menthol would “be bad for police-community trust.”

But the F.D.A.’s plan would address only the manufacturing, distribution, import and sale of menthol cigarettes — not carrying or smoking them.

“The F.D.A. cannot and will not enforce against individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes or any tobacco product,” Mr. Zeller said. “State and local law enforcement does not enforce the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.”