Menthol ban pitched as way to reduce racial disparities in tobacco harm

Advertising has disproportionately targeted Black youth.

Following a push from a lawsuit, the federal government is once again aiming to ban menthol flavoring from tobacco products, which are disproportionately advertised to and used by Black smokers.

Menthol makes it easier to inhale cigarette smoke, and the CDC said marketing and promotion of menthol cigarettes have been targeted heavily toward Black people through tailored advertising.

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The mint-flavored cigarettes are now overwhelmingly used by young people and minorities, particularly Black smokers, 85% of whom smoke menthols. That compares to about a third of white smokers.

“If you go into convenience stores and they’re on the west side of Dayton, which is predominantly African American, you see those advertisements,” said Ray Gaddis, M.S., a tobacco treatment specialist with the Substance Abuse Resource & Disability Issues center at Wright State University.

The Associated Press reported that the FDA has attempted several times to get rid of menthol but faced pushback from Big Tobacco, members of Congress and competing political interests in both the Obama and Trump administrations. Any menthol ban will take years to implement and will likely face legal challenges from tobacco companies.

The FDA’s April 29 announcement is the result of a lawsuit filed by anti-smoking and medical groups last summer to force the FDA to finally make a decision on menthol, alleging that regulators had “unreasonably delayed” responding to a 2013 petition seeking to ban the flavor.

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The deadline for the agency’s response was April 29. The FDA said it aims to propose regulations banning the flavor in the coming year and declined to speculate on when the rule would be finalized.

The action would also ban menthol and fruity flavors from low-cost, small cigars, which are increasingly popular with young people, especially Black teens.

“Tobacco is the number one most preventable cause of death among the African American community, taking 45,000 Black lives every year,” said Bruce Barcelo, program coordinator with Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services, who works on tobacco cessation initiatives.

Barcelo led a webinar Friday on menthol talking about the effort to ban the flavoring. The session was held in the lead up to No Menthol Sunday, May 16, a national observance day led by The Center for Black Health & Equity geared toward educating congregations and community members.

Menthol is the only cigarette flavor that was not banned under the 2009 law that gave the FDA authority over tobacco products, an exemption negotiated by industry lobbyists. The act did, though, instruct the agency to continue to weigh banning menthol.

The flavor’s persistence has infuriated anti-smoking advocates, who point to research that menthol’s numbing effect masks the harshness of smoking, likely making it easier to start and harder to quit.

If the proposed ban is enacted, the impact depends on the details of implementation.

The FDA said that its ban would only apply to manufacturers, distributors and retailers, not individuals.

The NAACP had been calling for a ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored e-cigarettes for years now and applauded the FDA’s effort. Some Congressional Black Caucus members have warned that banning menthol would create an illegal market for the products, subjecting Black communities to increased law enforcement.

Gaddis said once an individual is addicted to nicotine, they are still going to try to find that in some form.

“If they stop with the advertisements in our community so young people might not even see that, they might not even pick it up. But again, it’s been so entrenched since the ’50s and ’60s that I think our community would have a hard time dealing with it,” Gaddis said.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

How to get help quitting tobacco

The Ohio Tobacco Quit Line at 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) provides personal quit coaching and telephone counseling free of charge to all Ohioans, regardless of insurance status or income. Quit aids such as nicotine patches, gum or lozenges are provided for up to eight weeks at no charge to eligible participants.

Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services has partnered with Truth Initiative are offering a digital program, the EX program. To register for the program, visit

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