As more states ban menthol cigarettes, activists push for nation-wide ban

It’s been a busy year for legislators across the country, from negotiating coronavirus relief packages to orchestrating a Californian ban on the sale of gas and diesel cars and trucks by 2035

It seems that bans on menthol cigarettes might be next up. 

In August, California joined Massachusetts to become the second state in the country to place a ban on menthol-flavored cigarettes. 

Menthol is naturally found in peppermint and spearmint plants. It creates a cooling sensation allowing for a more comfortable and smoother smoking experience with less irritation. In short, menthol makes it easier to start smoking and harder to quit. 

The bans on menthol-flavored cigarettes and other tobacco products have gained popularity in the past few years. 

California’s ban is set to take place on Jan. 1, 2021, while Massachusetts’ began on June 1 of this year.

New Jersey and New York state legislatures have proposed bans on menthol cigarettes, but neither has reached the governor’s desk for approval. 

In June, a lawsuit by anti-smoking groups was filed against the Food and Drug Administration, alleging that the agency was moving too slow in implementing a menthol cigarette ban sought in 2018. 

Both plaintiffs, African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC) and Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), believe that failure to ban menthol cigarettes has cost thousands of lives, specifically those of African-Americans. 

Black smokers, according to data from the FDA, overwhelmingly smoke menthol-infused cigarettes to the tune of 86 percent. Roughly 46 percent of Hispanics, 39 percent of Asians, and approximately 29 percent of Whites smoke menthol cigarettes. 

“We stand before you today to announce that we are suing the United States Food and Drug Administration for their failure to implement public health policy that protects the health and welfare of African Americans with respect to menthol cigarettes,” said Carol McGruder, founding member and Co-Chair of the AATCLC, in a statement. “Our mission is to save the 45,000 Black lives lost each year from tobacco-induced diseases and we have resolutely pursued that mission since our inception.” 

In September, the American Medical Association joined as a plaintiff to “compel (the) FDA to meet its mandate and take action to ban menthol-flavored tobacco products.” 

“For generations, tobacco companies have promoted menthol cigarettes to the African American community, preying especially on African American youth,” said AMA President Susan R. Bailey, M.D., said in a statement. “The results are clear and grim; although African Americans usually smoke fewer cigarettes and start smoking at an older age, they are more likely than Whites to die from smoking-related diseases like heart disease and stroke.” 

The American Medical Association has called for banning menthol in combustible tobacco products and ending flavoring in tobacco products for the past few years. 

LeTrish Vetaw, a policy and advocacy manager at North Point Health and Wellness Center in Minneapolis, said to Bloomberg, “We all say Black Lives Matter, and they matter when it comes to tobacco products.” 

Vetaw was responsible for a Minneapolis city ordinance that limited the sale of menthol-flavored cigarettes to adult-only tobacco shops and liquor stores and a statewide bill banning them that passed the Minnesota House of Representatives. 

 According to the lawsuit, activists argue that fewer Black customers would have died if menthol had been removed from the market in 2010. Activists from both groups estimate that 4,700 fewer Black people would have prematurely died in this past year and that 461,000 Black people would not have taken up smoking. 

Tobacco companies, such as RJ Reynolds, the subsidiary of British American Tobacco that produces popular menthol cigarettes, Newport, argue that menthol does not cause any more harm than a usual cigarette. 

According to RJ Reynolds spokeswoman Neassa Kaelan Hollon, regulating menthol allows an illicit market to flourish. 

“Doing so gives way for attendant increased risk of police crackdowns, raids, and increased traffic and street stops,” said Hollon to Bloomberg 

Prominent Black civil rights leaders, such as activist and political commentator Rev. Al Sharpton, agree with Reynolds and have taken substantial amounts of funding from them through their organizations, such as the National Action Network. 

In January 2019, Sharpton testified against a proposed measure banning menthol cigarettes in New York City, citing concerns of increased racial profiling rates by police. 

“There will be a black street market for these cigarettes. The question is: how will the ban be enforced?” said Sharpton. “The police powers and procedures have to be laid out in the bill.”

New York City’s ban was ultimately defeated. 

U.S. menthol sales account for roughly 15 to 20 percent of all sales of British American Tobacco in the United States, according to Bloomberg Intelligence

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