Credit: (AP Photo/Elise Amendola), File
Menthol cigarettes disproportionately harm Black people. Why hasn't the FDA enacted a proposed ban?
LISTEN: Last year, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a ban on menthol flavored cigarettes, a product historically marketed to Black people. Now health advocates are urging the FDA to move forward. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge has more.
Decades have gone by since the first data indicated that smoking cigarettes is hazardous to one's health and nicotine is addictive.
Congress went so far as to, in 1965, start requiring all cigarette packages distributed in the United States to carry a health warning. That warning is now labeled in the name of the U.S. Surgeon General.
By the start of the '70s, Big Tobacco was banned from advertising on television and radio.
"We've known since the 1940s that cigarettes and tobacco cause medical illness and harm," said Dr. Sylvia Gates Carlisle, past president of the Association of Black Women Physicians.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned other flavored cigarettes in 2009, but not menthol.
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African American adults have the highest percentage of menthol cigarette use compared with other racial and ethnic groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than 18 million people in the U.S. smoke menthol cigarettes, but the FDA said almost 85% of Black smokers choose menthol cigarettes, compared with 30% of white smokers.
Menthol, a flavor additive with a minty taste and aroma, interacts with nicotine in the brain to enhance nicotine’s addictive effects, and the combination of menthol’s flavor, sensory effects and interaction with nicotine in the brain increases the likelihood that young people who start using menthol cigarettes will progress to regular use, according to the FDA.
The agency made an April 22 proposal to ban menthol tobacco products.
I think the the tobacco industry is protecting its interests, which is to make money. — Dr. Sylvia Gates Carlisle
Dr. Philip Gardner, one of the co-chairs of the African-American Tobacco Control Leadership Council said he heard from people within the FDA who say the menthol ban could move forward in August.
"But we've heard that that probably won't happen either," Gardner said. "So, the short answer is the tobacco industry's pressure and influence within our government and around our agencies is what's prevented this from moving forward."
"Banning menthol, the last allowable flavor in cigarettes, and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products," acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock said in a statement made two years ago.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Dr. Giridhar Mallya agreed last year that eliminating menthol cigarettes will save lives and reduce health disparities, especially among Black Americans.
"Menthol is the most popular cigarette among young people and among African Americans and other communities of color," he said. "There has been a process (by the FDA) to focus specifically on flavorings because we know they attract youth."
While the FDA made an announcement in 2018 during the Trump administration to prohibit menthol cigarettes, a ban did not come to pass.
"I think the the tobacco industry is protecting its interests, which is to make money," Carlisle said. "That is in complete opposition to the public health interests or the interests of the broader community."
She said advocates are calling on the FDA to use the evidence that tobacco causes harm to remove an additive that interferes with your body's ability to protect yourself from the harmful effects of smoke.
"Tobacco is a numbing agent," Carlisle said. "If you go to a barbecue and inhale smoke, you cough because your body's trying to protect you. So we're just asking the FDA to complete the work from over a decade ago."