The Biden administration is narrowing in on finalizing the decade-long fight against menthol cigarettes.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its plans to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars permanently.
“The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. “Additionally, the proposed rules represent an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.”
Banning menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars has been a priority for the FDA for a decade.
The issue has been addressed as a civil rights issue since supporters and opposition seem to agree that the ban would affect African Americans at a disproportionate rate.
In 2019, more than 18 million Americans smoked menthol cigarettes, with higher rates among young people, African Americans, and other racial groups, according to the FDA. Menthol smoking declined among white teenagers between 2011 and 2018 but not among Black and Hispanic youth, the agency noted.
According to the Truth Initiative, 19.2% of adults in Alabama smoked as of 2019, 9.5% of high school students in Alabama smoked cigars or cigarillos at least one day in the 30 days prior to the survey, and 7.1% of high school students in Alabama smoked cigarettes.
Alabama received an estimated $300.1 million in revenue from tobacco settlement payments and taxes in 2020. Of this, the state allocated $2.2 million in state funds to tobacco prevention.
Supporters have long said that the ban would be beneficial to the health of Americans since some studies have shown that menthol cigarettes are more harmful and addictive than non-flavored cigarettes.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) supports the ban and has argued that the availability of menthol cigarettes is another form of racial discrimination.
“For decades, the tobacco industry has been targeting African Americans and have contributed to the skyrocketing rates of heart disease, stroke and cancer across our community,” a statement from the NAACP said. “The tobacco industry is on a narrow quest for profit, and they have been killing us along the way. The NAACP has been calling for a ban on menthol cigarettes and flavored e-cigarettes for years now, and we applaud the FDA’s latest plan to do just that. It’s about time we prioritize the health and well-being of African Americans.”
Not all civil rights leaders support the ban.
In 2019, when the New York City Council proposed a ban on menthol cigarettes, civil rights leader Al Sharpton opposed the ban, saying that it would only lead to more violent encounters between police and African Americans.
The American Civil Liberties Union also opposes the ban, saying that, while the attempt is well-intentioned, it would negatively impact African American communities.
“While this legislation is a well-intended effort to address health issues associated with tobacco use among youth, we have concerns that a blanket prohibition on menthol and other flavored tobacco products, which will apply to adults, will (1) disproportionately impact people and communities of color; (2) trigger criminal penalties, prioritizing criminalization over public health and harm reduction; and (3) instigate unconstitutional policing and other negative interactions with local law enforcement,” a statement from the ACLU read.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which seeks “a society thriving without unnecessary government burdens, where property rights are secure, and Americans are free to prosper,” opposes the ban.
According to the CEI, a ban on menthol cigarettes would perpetuate the “racist war on drugs.”
“The reasons someone chooses to start and continue smoking are complex, influenced by individual, environmental, social, economic and psychological factors,” said Michelle Minton with the CEI. “Regulatory attempts to discourage tobacco use rarely account for these complexities; instead they favor blunt approaches meant to force people to quit. These attempts, through taxation, stigma or bans, have always, without fail, caused more harm than good, especially for marginalized groups.”
Altria, which sells menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, also disagreed with the ban.
“Taking these products out of the legal marketplace will push them into unregulated criminal markets,” the company said in a statement. “We will continue to engage in this long-term regulatory process.”
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