Editorial: Banning menthol cigarettes is a racial justice issue

Packs of menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products at a store in San Francisco.
Packs of menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products at a store in San Francisco.
(Associated Press)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s announcement Thursday that it was moving to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars this year is not just the single most important step the federal agency has taken reduce the deadly impact of tobacco use in the U.S. It’s also one that comes with significant racial justice implications.

How so? Although smoking has plummeted in the U.S. since its heyday in the mid-20th century, tobacco-related ailments are still the main cause of preventable death. And even while Black Americans smoke at lower rates than other ethnic groups, they are more likely to die from tobacco-related disease. And, finally, about 85% of Black Americans who smoke choose menthol cigarettes, which are easier to get hooked on and harder to quit.

If it sounds a bit nanny state-ish to ban an otherwise legal product used by consenting adults, consider this: In 2009, Congress gave the FDA authority to ban all other flavors in cigarettes, which it did in order to make these dangerous products less attractive to new smokers. But Congress stalled on menthols and asked for more study.


The FDA did more research and found that menthol, which is similar to mint, is the most insidious of all flavors. Like candy and fruit flavorings, menthol masks the unpleasant taste of tobacco. Unlike those other flavors, however, menthol cigarettes have anesthetic properties that mask the abrasiveness of tobacco smoke and induce users to inhale more deeply, increasing their exposure to the harmful chemicals in the smoke, which some researchers believe increases addiction.

What’s more, tobacco companies have aggressively marketed menthol cigarettes to communities of color for decades, using predatory advertising schemes and promotions that appeal not just to adults in Black and other ethnic communities, but to youngsters of all races. That helps explain why about half of all people under 18 who smoke use menthol tobacco, authorities say.

The proposed menthol ban does not extend to electronic cigarettes, but that’s not necessarily a cause for concern. The FDA is working on regulations for these relatively new products and certainly should use that rule-making process as an opportunity to prohibit enticing flavors there as well. While electronic cigarettes are considered less harmful than their combustible brethren, studies show they attract new users to nicotine products and may lead to the adoption of traditional cigarettes.

The singular threat from menthol-flavored cigarettes was the rationale for California lawmakers to include them in a ban on all flavored tobacco products last year. That law is on hold until 2022, when voters will decide whether to ratify or reject it through a referendum funded by the tobacco industry. But anti-tobacco advocates say that defending the state prohibition is a public health battle worth fighting because the federal menthol ban could take up to three years to implement, or even longer if slowed by legal challenges.

While the FDA’s action is certainly worth applauding, it took a lawsuit to get the agency off the sidelines. The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and other public health groups sued over the government’s failure to regulate menthol, despite compelling evidence of its harm. In November, a judge rejected the government’s bid to dismiss the case, and Thursday’s announcement was the settlement. It’s a victory for public health nonetheless, no matter what the American Civil Liberties Union says.

The ACLU and other civil rights groups sent a letter Monday to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock arguing against a menthol ban, claiming that it would perpetuate overpolicing in Black communities. But the FDA ban would not criminalize possession of menthol cigarettes, just remove them from the market. Local police do not enforce federal food and drug regulations. It would indeed be troubling if law enforcement used a ban on menthol cigarettes as a pretext to target communities of color further, but that is a separate issue better dealt with by criminal justice reform at the state and local level.

Indeed, Black public health advocates contend, and we agree, that the bigger injustice is allowing tobacco companies to continue to push their deadly product on communities of color.