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Black Smokers Top of Mind as Push for FDA Menthol Ban Grows

July 22, 2021, 7:05 PM

Advocacy groups are boosting outreach on programs to help people quit smoking as they call for quicker FDA action to ban menthol cigarettes, a product that has disproportionately impacted the health of Black Americans.

In the next few months there will be efforts to do community outreach so those who are struggling with addiction know what services are available before such a ban takes hold, Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said.

His group and others want the Food and Drug Administration to streamline its plans to issue proposed product standards that would prohibit the sale of menthol cigarettes and all flavors in cigars. The FDA announced in April that it will release the proposal within the next year and will allow an opportunity for public comment.

“There is no need to wait a year. Now is the time to move,” Myers said Wednesday at an Alliance for Health Policy briefing.

Menthol flavoring in cigarettes is dangerous because it masks the unpleasant flavor of nicotine and has a numbing effect, making it easier to become addictive, Kathleen Hoke, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and director of the Network for Public Health Law, said in an interview. The only way to reduce tobacco addiction and curb future deaths is a menthol ban to force people to quit, she said.

About 85% of Black smokers in the U.S. favor menthol, by some estimates, compared with just 29% of White smokers. A study by University of Waterloo researchers suggests that a U.S. ban on menthol cigarettes would lead to more than 900,000 smokers quitting, including 230,000 Black people in the first 13 to 17 months after a ban goes into effect, the FDA said in an April statement.

The FDA has said that such a ban would reduce tobacco-related health disparities in communities of color and low-income populations.

“For far too long, certain populations, including African Americans, have been targeted, and disproportionately impacted by tobacco use. Despite the tremendous progress we’ve made in getting people to stop smoking over the past 55 years, that progress hasn’t been experienced by everyone equally,” Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said in the statement.

Readying for a Ban

The FDA’s announcement came after more than a decade of inaction. Congress first recommended in 2009 that the agency decide what to do about menthol cigarettes. Menthol is the last allowable flavor in cigarettes, according to the FDA.

Myers said that when the FDA releases its proposal, anti-tobacco advocates should be ready to: submit detailed comments outlining the importance of banning menthol cigarettes, participate in the FDA process and remind the agency to act quickly, and encourage the agency to swiftly oppose any litigation by the tobacco industry.

In the meantime, people struggling with addiction to menthol cigarettes should be aware of cessation services, programs made available to help smokers quit, Myers said.

Nicotine addiction should be seen as a chronic disease, and those struggling with addiction should also have easier access to medical treatment, Carol McGruder, founding member and co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, said at the Alliance for Health Policy event.

McGruder’s group filed a lawsuit in June 2020, against the FDA for its alleged failure to move quickly to ban menthol cigarettes. That case is ongoing.

Ads in Black Communities

A high percentage of Black smokers smoke menthol cigarettes due to a marketing campaign dating back to the 1950s that involved community and music events, magazine ads, price discounts, and other marketing tactics targeted at Black people, research for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids found.

“Advertising companies started putting African Americans in ads and made them look wealthy, successful, and happy. Which were messages that they never saw in ads anywhere else,” Roberta Clarke, professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business who focuses on health-care marketing, said in an interview.

“So if you were Black, you might’ve thought, ‘Wow, this is great. Finally companies are paying attention to us.’ she said. “They depicted African American families in an appealing way unlike ever seen before. Cigarette manufacturing companies also contributed heavily to African American causes like the NAACP and the National Urban League.”

The FDA needs to follow through with the ban so the next generation of Black youth can go through adolescence without shortening their life span or being addicted to tobacco, McGruder said.

“Menthol cigarettes are creating unprecedented harm to our most vulnerable communities,” Myers said. “The scientific evidence is now clear, unequivocal, and substantial. There is no scientific reason for the FDA to not act.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Lesley Torres in California at ltorres@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloombergindustry.com; Alexis Kramer at akramer@bloomberglaw.com

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