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Biden to ban menthol cigarettes: when can you no longer buy them?

The FDA issued a statement on Thursday outlining their proposal to ban menthol as a characterizing flavour in tobacco products, cigarettes and cigars.

Michael M. SantiagoAFP

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has confirmed its commitment to ban all products which use flavoured tobacco in a push to significantly drive down the numbers deaths from smoking-relating illnesses. On Thursday, the FDA outlined its proposal to issue product standards which will effectively prohibit menthol as a characterizing flavour in cigarettes and ban all characterizing flavours (including menthol) in cigars. The market value of the tobacco manufacturing industry in the United States according to last year’s figures, stands at 47.39 billion dollars. However, tobacco production in the US is in decline – as is the number of people smoking. In 1965, there were 50 million smokers in the US but that figure currently stands at under 40 million, according to the CDC’s most recent data. Nationwide, the smoking rate for young people has dropped by 3.7% but a 2019 survey by the FDA found that 28% of high-school students are vaping.

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Number of Americans who die from smoking-related causes

Every year, nearly half a million Americans die prematurely due to smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke. Another 16 million live with a serious illness caused by smoking. The United States annually spends nearly $170 billion on medical care to treat smoking-related diseases in adults.

According to the World Health Organisation, menthol cigarettes represent an estimated 10% of the global cigarette market. Menthol, is an organic compound made synthetically or obtained from the oils of corn mint, peppermint or other mints. It is the most widely used cigarette flavour since menthol-flavoured tobacco began to be mass produced in the 1960s. Many smokers wrongly believe that menthol-flavoured cigarettes are less harmful than standard tobacco.

Other countries have banned menthol flavoured tobacco products

Several countries have tried successfully or otherwise to pass laws prohibiting menthol tobacco products. Brazil was the first to do so in March 2012 but were unable to enforce it due to industry lobbyists Sinditabaco and a subsequent legal battle. Six years later, in February 2018, Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court ruled that the Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency (ANVISA) had the power to regulate the tobacco industry. That ruling upheld the regulation banning the use of all flavours and additives in tobacco products sold in Brazil. Turkey was the first country to successfully introduce a ban on flavoured cigarettes, including menthol, in 2015. The European Union banned the sale of such products in May 2016 and Canada followed suit in October 2017.

In the US, the FDA hope that a similar ban on menthol flavoured tobacco products will be passed into law by 2022. Director of FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products Mitch Zeller told NPR’s Rachel Martin today, “We have a huge health equity issue when it comes to combusted tobacco products in general – menthol and flavoured cigars specifically. All the progress at a population level, reducing consumption and prevalence of cigarettes hasn’t applied equally. 90% of black Americans who smoke, smoke menthol cigarettes compared to about 30% of white Americans who smoke menthol. There is a huge health disparity issue and it is vital that we step in to take these harmful flavours out of combusted tobacco products”.

Zeller was asked why the FDA didn’t take it a step further and ban all tobacco products. “That’s a bigger, broader question for society and ultimately, for Congress in our statute. There is actually a provision which says we don’t have the authority to ban entire categories of tobacco products. What we do have, is the power called the product standard authority and that’s the power which we propose to use to take menthol and these other flavours out of cigars. There are many who feel we should have taken this action a long time ago. I’m confident in the evidence-based side of things but it is a rule-making process and that can take time. When we made the announcement yesterday, we said that we intend to get these two proposed policies published within a year, and beyond that we will move as quickly as we can without making any promises as to ultimately how long it will take”.

In a statement, Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said, "Banning menthol - the last allowable flavour - in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products. With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products. Together, these actions represent powerful, science-based approaches that will have an extraordinary public health impact. Armed with strong scientific evidence, and with full support from the Administration, we believe these actions will launch us on a trajectory toward ending tobacco-related disease and death in the US”.