WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it will ban all menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.
The agency has maintained for nearly a decade that menthol cigarettes, which produce a milder smoke than traditional cigarettes, have played an outsized role in hooking young people on smoking. The FDA first explicitly promised a menthol ban in 2018, but backed off amid intense pushback from the tobacco industry and its allies.
“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 Janet Woodcock said in a statement.
It’s not clear when the ban will go into effect. An FDA press release announcing the decision did not include an effective date for the ban. Instead, it promised that it will work toward developing a regulation banning these products “within the next year.”
FDA officials declined STAT’s request to provide an estimate for when the ban will be finalized.
“It’s really impossible to predict,” said the director of the FDA’s tobacco center, Mitch Zeller, who noted that a previous regulation on menthol received more than 175,000 comments, all of which the FDA was required to consider. “There are very important considerations, starting with legal considerations, about getting this right.”
The ban comes on the heels of a similar decision by the European Union and Canada. A number of states, including Massachusetts and California, have also attempted to enact their own menthol bans.
Public health advocates, who have insisted that banning menthol will help ameliorate health disparities between white and Black Americans and blunt youth tobacco use, celebrated the FDA’s move. They argue that Black Americans smoke menthols at a higher rate than other racial groups because the tobacco industry has targeted its menthol marketing toward Black communities.
Zeller, the tobacco center director, cited a study claiming a U.S. menthol ban would prompt 923,000 smokers to quit, including 230,000 African Americans, in the first 13 to 17 month after a ban was enacted.
“The FDA has taken a historic, life-saving step. Menthol has long been the tobacco industry’s most sacrosanct flavor, responsible for addicting millions of people to their deadly products,” former CDC Director Richard Besser said in a statement. “Banning menthol cigarettes will most assuredly save lives, eliminate great suffering, and reduce health care costs.”
Tobacco companies are expected to challenge the decision in court. They argue that the FDA does not have the legal justification for regulating menthol cigarettes any differently than other forms of smoked tobacco. Should the FDA’s decision stand, it would decimate roughly one-third of the U.S. cigarette market, costing the industry billions.
Opponents of the ban say it will fuel a black market for the products, or simply force those smokers onto other types of cigarettes.
“Evidence from other countries suggests that a menthol ban is not a magic wand that will spur a majority of users to quit nicotine entirely. There will be no massive public health benefit if the response from most menthol and little cigar smokers is to switch to Marlboros or use illicit products bought off the street,” Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, said in a statement that argued the FDA must now allow flavored vaping products to stay on the market as alternatives for former menthol smokers.
Public health groups argue the ban will push smokers to finally quit. Recent research published in the BMJ found that 21.5% of menthol smokers surveyed two years after the Canadian ban had quit smoking, though 59.1% switched to non-menthol cigarettes and another 19.5% smoked menthols sold by First Nation tribes.
Certain civil rights groups have also worried that a ban on menthol cigarettes would lead to increased policing of Black neighborhoods. In the agency’s statement, the FDA promised that the ban will only target “manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers and retailers” of menthol products.
“The FDA cannot and will not enforce against individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes or any tobacco product,” the agency wrote.
The FDA’s decision comes as a result of a lawsuit brought by public health groups filed against the agency in 2020 after it failed to respond to their so-called citizen petition from 2013, calling on FDA to ban these products.
The agency did not, however, move forward with a plan to lower nicotine levels in cigarettes to non-addictive levels. Woodcock told reporters Thursday that that idea “is still under consideration.”
“It’s on the table, but we have not finished deliberations on that matter,” Woodcock added.