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FDA vows to ban menthol cigarettes, which could save queer lives

Menthol Cigarette Ban

Reynolds America manufactures several tobacco and smoke-free products, including Newport, the largest selling menthol cigarette in the nation. Photo: Reynolds America.

Menthol-flavored cigarettes and all flavored cigars would be banned in the U.S. under a plan unveiled Thursday by the FDA.

LGBTQ people disproportionately use menthol flavored tobacco products, a result of decades of targeted marketing to the LGBTQ community, according to a national study.

What’s the big deal with menthol?

Menthol can mask the harshness and taste of tobacco, making menthol cigarettes easier to use and increasing their appeal among vulnerable populations.

The Food and Drug Administration said it will issue a proposal within a year to ban menthol in cigarettes and ban all flavors, including menthol, in cigars.

“Banning menthol — the last allowable flavor — in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products,” acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said in a statement.

The FDA said the ban will only address manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers and retailers.

“The FDA cannot and will not enforce against individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes or any tobacco product. The FDA will work to make sure that any unlawful tobacco products do not make their way onto the market,” the agency said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Reynolds American, the maker of Newport, the most popular menthol cigarette, said the company will submit “robust, science-based evidence” as part of the FDA’s proposal process. The company contends that no scientific evidence exists for the FDA to regulate menthol cigarettes any differently than non-menthol cigarettes.

Public health advocacy groups, including the National LGBT Cancer Network, have pursued such a ban for years and applauded the announcement. In fact, Thursday is the deadline for the Biden Administration to respond to a lawsuit, filed by anti-smoking and public health groups, that was intended to force the FDA into action.

One of the groups that wants the menthol ban is OUT Against Big Tobacco Coalitions, an alliance of LGBTQ individuals and community organizations addressing tobacco control and health inequity issues in California’s LGBTQ community.

“Today’s decision to begin the lengthy process of removing menthol cigarettes and cigars from the marketplace is a critically important first step,” Shannon Kozlovich, program manager with OUT Against Tobacco, said in a statement.

“For decades Big Tobacco has used menthol products to deliberately target LGBTQ, Black, and young people, profiting off their addictions and premature deaths,” Kozlovich said. “Research has shown that menthol increases harm and addiction when added to tobacco products.”

For example, the LGBTQ community is three times more likely to use tobacco products than their heterosexual peers.

Public health and civil rights groups have long argued Black Americans have been disproportionately harmed by menthol cigarettes, as the tobacco industry deliberately targeted Black communities for decades.

More than 85 percent of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, according to federal data, as do more than half of all smokers between 12 and 17 years of age.

Thursday’s announcement is the most aggressive action against tobacco the FDA has taken since it gained regulatory authority in 2009, but the ban would most likely take years to implement and will certainly face enormous opposition from the tobacco industry and its lobbyists in Congress.

Congress banned flavored cigarettes as part of the 2009 law giving the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products, but a loophole negotiated by industry lobbyists exempted menthol. Instead, lawmakers directed the FDA to determine whether continued sale of menthol cigarettes was “appropriate for public health.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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