Editorial: The FDA is right to ban menthol cigarettes

Take a deep breath, America. We have made serious progress against smoking. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23% of adults were smokers in 2000. By 2020, the rate had dropped to 12.5%. Traditional cigarette smoking by teens fell from 22.5% in 2002 to 6% in 2019, according to the American Lung Assn.

And yet, we still have a long way to go, in part because the popularity of vaping has led to an overall increase in the consumption of tobacco products. A 2021 survey found that 11.3% of high school students said they currently use e-cigarettes; among them, more than a quarter vaped daily. And yes, e-cigarettes don’t have the smoke associated with lung cancer, but they do contain a lot of harmful chemicals that can cause respiratory problems and other health issues. Not to mention that they hook young people on nicotine, which then opens the door to cigarettes.

It’s probably no coincidence that in 2009 the United States Food and Drug Administration banned most types of flavored cigarettes, those that taste like candy or fruit and entice teens to smoke. It would take another 12 years for the FDA to announce a similar but partial ban on flavored e-cigarettes while continuing to debate whether vaping products should be banned altogether.

But there is a flavor that has remained intact, at least until now. After more than a decade of consideration, the FDA is proposing to ban menthol cigarettes and cigars (and is seeking public comment on the plan through July 5). Menthol has long been the most common and popular flavoring for tobacco products.

Menthol has a minty flavor that softens the harshness of cigarette smoke, making it easier to start and, according to some studies, harder to quit. It’s also specifically marketed to communities of color, so it’s no surprise that 48% of Latino adult smokers and 85% of black smokers use menthol tobacco products, compared to 30% of white smokers, according to the CDC. .

Of course, adults have the right to make their own decisions, even very bad decisions, about whether to smoke. Banning menthol, given its effect on the black community, is a double-edged sword. Tobacco companies have targeted vulnerable populations with marketing, causing disproportionate harm. Blacks smoke at somewhat higher rates than whites. But banning menthol could be seen as biased and condescending, with the government telling black adults they no longer have access to the type of cigarettes they like, while most white people can continue with the form of cigarettes they like. they chose. The effect of menthol on smoking rates is also not entirely clear. Despite higher levels of menthol consumption among Latinos, they are significantly less likely to smoke than whites.

But the debate ends with the irrefutable fact that menthol is a gateway to smoking and that it worsens overall smoking rates. According to anti-tobacco group Truth Initiative, the percentage of smokers who choose menthol has steadily increased from 2008 to 2018. And younger smokers — teens and young adults — are much more likely to choose menthol than regular cigarettes.

Our society has a right and a duty to take action to protect children and young adults from enormous harm, as the federal government did in 2019 when it raised the smoking age from 18 to 21. year. Given how difficult it is to quit smoking – less than 1 in 10 people who try to quit are successful – prevention is the best way to kick this deadly addiction.

Menthol’s popularity has already declined among some young people. A 2020 study found that from 2011 to 2018, menthol use among young cigarette smokers increased from 57.3% to 45.7%. But the numbers haven’t changed at all for young black and Latino smokers, the most likely to choose menthol in the first place. And even at the lowest rate, it is still higher than for adults.

Banning menthol is the right way to go, except it doesn’t go far enough. Menthol e-cigarettes are not included, although the FDA banned cartridge-based vaping with candy and fruit flavors in 2020.

This month, the Los Angeles City Council addressed the issue more forcefully: it banned flavored and menthol e-cigarettes as well as cigars and cigarettes. It’s not the first city to do so, but it’s the biggest. Of course, without a statewide ban — a similar California law is pending a referendum on the November ballot — many smokers are likely to buy their flavored tobacco products out of town. . But the bold actions of a few cities are setting a trend. That’s what happened with California’s ban on single-use plastic bags.

The tobacco industry argued that a ban on menthol products would only encourage menthol smokers to switch to regular cigarettes. But a 2020 meta-study that included reviews of places where such bans were already in place found that if some smokers switched products, fewer people started smoking. And surveys of menthol smokers cited in the meta-study found that a significant number said they would quit rather than try another tobacco product if there was a ban. .

To paraphrase an old cigarette advertising slogan, they would rather quit than change.

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