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The FDA is proposing a ban on menthol cigarettes

Menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products are displayed at a store in San Francisco in 2018.
Jeff Chiu
Menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products are displayed at a store in San Francisco in 2018.

Updated April 28, 2022 at 4:41 PM ET

The Food and Drug Administration is proposing a ban on menthol-flavored cigarettes and all cigar flavorings, except for tobacco flavor, the agency said Thursday.

The agency says the proposal has the potential to significantly decrease disease and death from tobacco by "reducing youth experimentation and addiction."

"The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit," Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in astatement. "Additionally, the proposed rules represent an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities."

The proposed standards are based in "clear science and evidence" that establish the addictive nature and harm of the flavored products, the agency said. The proposal builds on the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which banned cigarette flavors — aside from tobacco and menthol — in 2009.

"The authority to adopt tobacco product standards is one of the most powerful tools Congress gave the FDA and the actions we are proposing can help significantly reduce youth initiation and increase the chances that current smokers quit," said the FDA's commissioner, Dr. Robert Califf, in the statement.

Erika Sward, assistant vice president of national advocacy for the American Lung Association, told NPR that the measure is "a big deal" and that rules to ban menthol are overdue.

"It will save lives, especially in Black and brown communities in the United States, and it will reduce youth smoking," Sward said. "It will also lead to fewer people being diagnosed or getting lung disease, cancers and heart disease."

In 2019, there were 18.5 million menthol cigarette smokers ages 12 and older in the U.S., according to the FDA. Rates of menthol cigarette use were higher among young people and in Black communities.

For decades, the tobacco industry has targeted Black communities, said Portia Reddick White, vice president of policy and legislative affairs for the NAACP. In a letter last week, the organization urged the FDA to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes and flavored cigar products.

"The tobacco industry, over the years, they have been ruthless with their targeting," Reddick White told NPR. "They actually have targeted in many ways, advertising discounting prices that appeal or sponsoring events, actually giving money to Black educational institutions and civic leaders."

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for tobacco company Altria says the proposal will push the products into "unregulated criminal markets that don't follow any regulations and ignore minimum-age laws."

But Dennis Henigan of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says the proposal will survive legal challenges.

"I believe that the science is so strong in support of these rules and the lifesaving potential is so well established that these rules will be finalized and they will survive court challenge," Henigan told NPR.

The FDA will seek public comment on the proposal for 60 days.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
Rina Torchinsky