US health regulators pledged again on Thursday to try to ban menthol cigarettes, this time under pressure from African American groups to remove the mint flavor popular among black smokers.
The Food and Drug Administration has attempted several times to get rid of menthol but faced pushback from Big Tobacco, members of Congress and competing political interests in both the Obama and Trump administrations.
Any menthol ban will take years to implement and will likely face legal challenges from tobacco companies.
Thursday’s announcement is the result of a lawsuit filed by anti-smoking and medical groups last summer to force the FDA to finally make a decision on menthol, alleging that regulators had “unreasonably delayed” responding to a 2013 petition seeking to ban the flavor.
Dr Karen Beard, a psychologist who is trained in smoking cessation, said it’s potentially a big victory for public health.
“Banning menthol cigarettes now will take these products off the market,” Dr Beard said. “It will also mean that the tobacco industry can no longer target African Americans with these mentholated cigarettes.”
Dr Jin Ho Yoon, a psychiatrist and behavioral sciences professor at UT Health McGovern Medical School in Houston, said menthol cigarettes were targeted at African Americans because flavored tobaccos get smokers to consume more nicotine. He’s studied smoking rates in communities of color.
“We know the impact is pretty clear. It’s estimated that half of black smokers wouldn’t be smoking were it not simply for the availability of menthol cigarettes,” Dr Yoon said.
The deadline for the agency’s response was Thursday. The FDA said it aims to propose regulations banning the flavor in the coming year and declined to speculate on when the rule would be finalised.
The action would also ban menthol and fruity flavors from low-cost, small cigars, which are increasingly popular with young people.
Menthol is the only cigarette flavor that was not banned under the 2009 law that gave the FDA authority over tobacco products, an exemption negotiated by industry lobbyists.
A ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes came into force in the EU last year, after a four-year market transition period began in 2016.
The flavor’s persistence has infuriated anti-smoking advocates, who point to research that menthol’s numbing effect masks the harshness of smoking, likely making it easier to start and harder to quit.