Recently, in response to a citizen petition and subsequent lawsuit, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made the long-awaited decision to prohibit menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. This historic move will save lives, especially those of Black Americans, and has the potential to be the most impactful action taken in the United States to reduce youth smoking initiation.
Even though we’ve made tremendous progress in driving down smoking rates, the fact remains that half of all youth smokers, and nearly 90 percent of Black youth smokers, use menthols. This is far from shocking, given that menthol numbs the throat and masks the harshness of cigarette smoking, which makes it easier for kids to try cigarettes and eventually get hooked.
Menthol also makes cigarettes more addictive and harder to quit. The bottom line is that because of menthol, more young people start smoking and fewer smokers quit, and that’s especially the case among Black Americans, who have been targeted by the tobacco industry in a clear example of institutional racism. The FDA’s move to prohibit menthol flavoring in cigarettes takes away one of the tobacco industry’s sharpest tools to addict youth to its deadly products.
In taking action against flavored cigars, the FDA has also made a bold move in protecting young people. More than 1,400 kids under age 18 try cigars for the first time every single day in the U.S., and research shows that flavored cigars are driving this initiation. With the decision to prohibit these products, the tobacco industry will no longer be able to lure kids with cigar flavors like melon, cherry and honey berry.
While we certainly must celebrate this tremendous victory for racial and health equity, we need to be prepared for the tobacco industry to pull out all the stops to fight this decision and delay the forthcoming rule-making process. We can expect the industry to push false claims that prohibiting these products will subject Black Americans to more abuse by law enforcement.
This is nothing more than fear-mongering by an industry whose products claim 45,000 Black lives each year in the U.S. Luckily, there is deep support for prohibiting menthol cigarettes among Black civil rights and public health organizations, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a bipartisan group of state and territorial attorneys general, and scientific experts in the fields of tobacco use and addiction.
Nevertheless, it will be critical in the coming weeks and months for members of the Black community to stand up and speak out in support of protecting youth over tobacco industry profits. Be sure to follow the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids on Twitter, Facebook and/or Instagram to stay up-to-date as we continue this fight.