Regulators are moving to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes and cigars, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday.
The move follows years of pressure from advocates who say that the tobacco products are targeted at African Americans and are responsible for higher death rates in this group from illnesses brought on by smoking.
“Today’s action by the FDA to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes, while long overdue, is a major step toward preventing a new generation from becoming tobacco users and saving lives," said Susan R. Bailey, president of the American Medical Association.
Companies have aggressively marketed menthol cigarettes in African American communities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 85% of African Americans who smoke use menthol cigarettes, compared with 46% of Hispanics and 29% of whites, the FDA noted.
“For far too long, certain populations, including African Americans, have been targeted, and disproportionately impacted by tobacco use," FDA Center for Tobacco Products Director Mitch Zeller said in a statement.
Menthol soothes the irritation that tobacco smoke causes. Since the cigarettes are easier to smoke, an FDA review found that new smokers were more likely to start smoking and become regular users.
By encouraging more people to start and making it harder for them to stop, a study found that menthol cigarettes were responsible for an extra 10.1 million people becoming smokers between 1980 and 2018.
Congress banned flavored cigarettes in 2009, but the law exempted menthol. Instead, it instructed the government to study the impacts of menthol on public health.
FDA's 2013 review determined that "menthol cigarettes pose a public health risk above that seen with non-menthol cigarettes."
Public health groups petitioned the FDA to ban menthol cigarettes. The FDA proposed a ban in 2018 but did not follow through.
Groups sued in 2020. Thursday was a court-ordered deadline for the FDA to respond to the petition.
Some groups have expressed concerns that making menthol cigarettes illegal would make criminals of people who still sought them, disproportionately affecting minority communities.
Zeller said that would not happen.
"The FDA cannot and will not enforce against individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes or any tobacco products," he said. "Our job will be to make sure that any unlawful tobacco products do not make their way onto the market."
The agency aims to have a final rule in place within a year, officials said. But the effort may run into legal obstacles.
Tobacco companies disagree with the FDA's assessment of the risks.
"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," said R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company spokesperson Neassa Hollon.