“The proposed product standards will, among other things, improve the health and reduce the mortality risk for current smokers of flavored cigarettes or cigars by reducing their consumption significantly and increasing the likelihood of cessation. This is another important step in the agency’s efforts to combat youth tobacco use and promote equal health. “
This landmark proposal could have a major impact on public health, experts said.
A share issue
The tobacco industry has largely marketed menthol products to color communities and other minority groups.
“Today marks the beginning of the end of menthol cigarettes – a truly historic moment for public health. For decades, tobacco companies have deliberately pushed menthol cigarettes to hook young people on their deadly products and implemented racist marketing practices to deliberately target black Americans; the resulting health consequences has been devastating, “said Dr. Julie Morita, executive director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in a statement.
“The proposed rules will help prevent children from becoming next-generation smokers and help adult smokers quit,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement Thursday. “In addition, the proposed rules represent an important step in promoting fair health by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.”
A transition to flavored cigars
After the 2009 Tobacco Control Act banned flavored cigarettes, many smokers who preferred flavors – especially children – may have switched to flavored cigars, including menthol and “child-friendly” flavors such as fruit punch, strawberries and grapes.
The FDA said that the use of flavored cigars “increased dramatically” and that public health goals may have been “undermined” by the availability of these products. More than half a million young people in the United States smoke flavored cigars, according to the FDA.
Flavored cigars and cigarillos are especially popular with children, especially black and Hispanic children, who are twice as likely to smoke them as their white classmates.
In 2020, more young people said they tried a cigar every day than they tried a cigarette.
“A ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars will mark a historic turning point in the decades-long fight against tobacco use and the epidemic of tobacco-related diseases,” Nancy Brown, executive director of the American Heart Association, said in a statement Thursday. “The science is clear: Menthol cigarettes have a negative impact on public health and have no public health benefits compared to non-menthol cigarettes. They increase the likelihood and degree of addiction among young smokers, and increase the number of premature deaths from tobacco use. Removing them from the market would have enormous benefits to public health in this country. “
Individual consumers would not be prosecuted
If passed, the FDA was careful to note that the rule would only apply to tobacco companies and industry. The agency, as well as state and local law enforcement, do not independently enforce FDA rules.
The proposed rule will not penalize individual consumers for having menthol products.
Other groups, such as the NAACP and many members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are in favor of a ban.
“Targeting and marketing menthol flavors from the tobacco industry has had a devastating impact on our society. Menthol flavor cigarettes have provoked many children and adults, resulting in lifelong addiction, health challenges and ultimately killing our loved ones,” the NAACP said in a statement. “Today is a great victory for justice, fairness and public health.”
The FDA said Thursday that it “recognizes concerns about how state and local law enforcement can enforce their own laws in a way that could affect justice and community safety, especially for underserved and underrepresented communities. The FDA is seeking comments on, among other things, how it can best clarify the respective roles of the Agency and state and local law enforcement, as well as political considerations related to potential racial and social justice implications of the proposed product standards. “
Califf said this is something the agency will address more in the future.
“We take these concerns seriously,” he said. “Let us make one thing very clear. These measures and associated enforcement will be on the tobacco industry, not individuals who own or use these products.”
Next: Public comment period
An FDA ban on menthol and flavored cigars will not take effect immediately.
The next step will be a comment period that will run from May 4 to July 5. The FDA will also hold public listening sessions on June 13 and 15.
The agency is then expected to take the time to review the comments before a rule is finally adopted.
The rule enters into force one year after the final version is published. Public health experts are confident that tobacco companies will also try to stop the ban by suing the agency, as the companies have done with previous tobacco control legislation.
“This is not trivial,” Califf said. Tobacco-related deaths are high, he noted, and so are tobacco-related diseases.
“My prayer is that we do not lose the sense of urgency,” he said. “Literally, lives can be saved.”