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Why is Biden banning menthol cigarettes?

An FDA statement echoes calls to ban menthol smoking products entirely, as public health groups are pressuring the President to act swiftly.

Why is Biden banning menthol cigarettes?
ANDREW KELLY REUTERS

President Joe Biden is expected to announce a proposed ban on menthol cigarettes later this week as his administration look to remove the products which disproportionately impact the health of young people and racial minorities.

On Thursday the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced their response to a citizen’s petition on the ban, confirming their intention to ban menthol smoking products.

The statement says: "The FDA is working toward issuing proposed product standards within the next year to ban menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes and ban all characterizing flavors (including menthol) in cigars."

An estimated 20 million Americans smoke the mint-flavoured cigarettes, according to the FDA. The move to pass meaningful legislation has benefitted from additional support in recent years as health organisation such as the American Medical Association throw their weight behind the cause.

Racial minorities and young people are most at-risk

The demographic split of smokers in the United States has been shifting constantly for the last half century as the full extent of the health dangers has become more apparent. The tobacco industry has faced increasing restrictions on its products but menthol products have not been specifically addressed.

During that time menthol cigarettes have been aggressively marketed to Black people in the US, report the New York Times. Research from the FDA suggests that around 85% of Black people who smoke use menthol brands, with Newport and Kool particularly popular.

Menthol products can come in a variety of flavours and some, such a mass-produced flavoured cigarillos, have been linked to young people smoking. Research has shown that menthol cigarettes and related products are much easier to become addicted to and much harder to quit than traditional tobacco.

Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of the Center for Black Health and Equity, celebrated the new, saying it had “been a long time coming.”

We added: “We’ve been fighting this fight, since back in the 1980s. We told the industry then, we didn’t want those cigarettes in our communities.”

When will menthol cigarettes be banned in the US?

Although Biden looks set to announce his plans to enact a nationwide ban on menthol tobacco products, any such proposals would likely get caught up with lengthy court challenges. The FDA deadline was enforced by a federal district judge in Northern California who ruled that the agency must respond to the petition by 29 April 2021.

Last year the House of Representatives passed a bill which banned all favours of menthol cigarettes and e-cigarettes, but the proposal did not pass the Senate. This time the Democrats would be in a better position to push through such a bill but they would need at least ten Republican senators to cross the aisle and vote for the legislation.

The tobacco industry is expected to fight back pretty hard against these attempts to restrict their trade and Steven Callahan, a spokesman for Altria, which owns Philip Morris, said that they would prefer a different solution.

“We share the common goal of moving adult smokers from cigarettes to potentially less harmful alternatives, but prohibition does not work,” he said.

“A far better approach is to support the establishment of a marketplace of F.D.A.-authorized non-combustible alternatives that are attractive to adult smokers.”