USA: Advocates welcome federal step to ban menthol cigarettes

USA: Advocates welcome federal step to ban menthol cigarettes

Smoke-free advocates are applauding a recently proposed federal ban on menthol cigarettes, while calling on area cities to pass their own bans sooner.

The Food and Drug Administration announced last week it would take steps to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes over the next year. It was a long-awaited response to a petition submitted by public health organizations in 2013.

Advocates have pursued bans on flavored tobacco products due to their appeal to young people. Menthol-flavored products are heavily marketed toward people of color, leading to racial disparities in tobacco-related illnesses.

A federal ban on the products would be a step toward addressing the “shameful” health disparities related to smoking, said Mary Kramer, an assistant professor in Minnesota State University’s health science department.

“This is something we must move forward on, and I’m slightly optimistic we’re going to do it this time,” she said.

The FDA’s proposed ban can’t take effect immediately, as there needs to be a lengthy public comment period first. For that reason, Kramer and other advocates say they expect pushes for local level bans in the meantime.

Bloomington became the latest city in Minnesota to ban sales of flavored tobacco products, including menthol, last week. Most cities to already do so are in the Twin Cities metro, although Rushford in southeastern Minnesota and Duluth are among the cities to do so elsewhere.

Efforts to ban menthol cigarettes at local levels could mirror what happened with the fight to raise the age to legally purchase tobacco in recent years. Mankato, North Mankato and St. Peter all passed Tobacco 21 ordinances before the state and federal government ultimately raised the age.

Banning menthol would be long overdue, said Elizabeth Heimer, specialist of public policy and advocacy with the American Lung Association. Menthol is the only flavored cigarette still legally sold in most cities — most flavored e-cigarettes, though, have escaped bans so far.

“For cigarettes, it does close that loop,” Heimer said of the FDA’s eventual plans. “However, there are still products we need to make sure we’re covering with this. That’s why we’re urging states and local leaders to start passing policies now to end all flavored tobacco products.”

Menthol flavoring can mask the harshness of cigarettes, making it easier to reel in first-time smokers. It’s basically an initiation product for youth, Kramer said, adding that many of the people she works with as a tobacco treatment specialist started using menthol or other flavored products in their early teens.

“Menthol just masks the burn,” she said. “It takes away any displeasure.”

Targeted marketing of menthol products toward people of color has been successful over the years. About 85% of African Americans who smoke use menthol cigarettes, and smoking-related illnesses are the leading causes of death among African Americans.

The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, or AATCLC, was among the groups spearheading efforts to ban menthol products. In a statement, the council’s co-chair Dr. Phillip Gardiner said the ban would be a major step toward saving Black lives, and called on activists to keep pushing at state and local levels.

“The AATCLC strongly encourages that tobacco control activists throughout the country continue to fight to ban the sale of menthol products at the local, state and federal levels,” he stated. “We know this rule making process could takes years and we know that the tobacco industry will continue to do everything in their power to derail any attempt to remove their deadly products from the market.”

Source: The Free Press