Menthol Cigarettes Stay Fresh, But Head Towards Illegal Status [Infographic]

They were marketed as “cool”, “mild” and “refreshing”, but were also linked to making smoking more palatable and negatively impacting communities of color. The United States Food and Drug Administration announced on Thursday that it plans to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes in a bid to wean more Americans off tobacco.

Menthol cigarettes still enjoy a large following in the United States, with almost two out of every five cigarettes sold in the country in 2020 being menthol cigarettes. While the total number of cigarettes sold in the United States has fallen significantly since 1980, the Federal Trade Commission’s Cigarette Report shows that the share of menthol cigarettes in those sales has increased again over the past decade to reach 37%.

Menthol cigarettes have proven popular among young people, the LGBT community, and especially African Americans. According to the FDA, 85% of black smokers in the United States smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to just 30% of white smokers. While African Americans as a whole do not have significantly higher smoking rates than whites, black men do and as a result experience the highest rates of lung cancer in the nation.

Some studies have suggested that the perceived soothing effect of menthol cigarettes allows smokers to inhale more toxins, while African Americans absorb more harmful chemicals per cigarette than whites, independent of metabolic factors.

Other arguments against menthol cigarettes are that they are easier to start and harder to quit, two points that the tobacco industry denies. Kingsley Wheaton, marketing director of British American Tobacco, owner of the famous brand of menthol cigarettes Reynolds, was quoted by The New York Times as saying that menthol cigarettes were as harmful as regular cigarettes and therefore should not be banned.

Consumption of menthol-free cigarettes decreased faster

While the volume of sales of menthol-free cigarettes in the United States has been reduced by 72% since 1980, sales of menthol cigarettes have only decreased by 57%. Yet a recent study from Vanderbilt University also refutes the CDC’s claim that menthol smokers have a harder time quitting than non-menthol smokers. Yet the study does not address what would happen if a menthol smoker were to switch to regular tobacco.

This case study, however, was recently done in many European countries, as the United States is a bit behind in banning menthol cigarettes. A sales ban came into force in the EU and UK in 2020, but a survey of menthol cigarette smokers showed that six months after the ban only 8% had quit. The coronavirus pandemic may have been a factor here as it increased tobacco consumption, with 2020 also seeing a rare increase in cigarette sales in the United States. Preference for menthol is much lower in the EU, with around 5% of cigarettes being of this type.

Canada had previously banned menthol cigarettes, halting sales between 2015 and 2017, and had more encouraging but still not overwhelmingly positive results regarding quit rates for menthol smokers. Brazil was the first country in the world to try to ban menthol cigarettes in 2012, but never fully implemented the law due to a major pushback by the tobacco industry.

Mapped by Statistical

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