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3 key takeaways on the FDA proposed rules to eliminate menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars

The Food and Drug Administration released proposed rules that would remove menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars from the market, a move that – once finalized – could prevent millions of premature deaths, especially among Black Americans.

Both menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars are considered “starter” products for regular tobacco use. Menthol cigarettes – the only flavored cigarettes still on the market – are easier to start smoking, and more difficult to stop, which can accelerate addiction. The flavor reduces the harshness of cigarette smoke due to its characteristic cooling effects on the mouth and throat and suppresses the coughing reflex. Flavored cigars are sold in over 250 flavors such as banana smash, cherry dynamite, and chocolate, as well as menthol. They often look just like cigarettes and can be sold individually, making them cheaper and more appealing to youth and other price-sensitive groups.

Here are three key takeaways from the April 28 announcement.

Eliminating these products will prevent more young smokers

It’s estimated that, from 1980 to 2018, menthol cigarettes alone were responsible for 10.1 million extra smokers and 378,000 premature deaths. The consequences are especially severe among African Americans, who have long been targeted with predatory marketing from the tobacco industry. Over that same time period from 1980 to 2018, menthol cigarettes were responsible for 1.5 million new smokers, 157,000 smoking-related premature deaths and 1.5 million life-years lost among the African American population, according to the 2021 study published in Tobacco Control.

The FDA announcement of the rules stated that “the combination of menthol’s flavor, sensory effects and interaction with nicotine in the brain increases the likelihood that youth who start using menthol cigarettes will progress to regular use. Menthol also makes it more difficult for people to quit smoking.”  

Nearly half of youth who ever tried smoking started with menthol cigarettes and according to the 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), 41% of current high school smokers use menthol cigarettes. Flavored cigars are also popular among young people. According to the 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS), cigars are the second most popular tobacco product among high school students after e-cigarettes. Nearly 3 in 4 youth cigar smokers (74%) report that they smoke cigars “because they come in flavors I like.”

“More than a half million youth in the U.S. use flavored cigars, and in recent years more young people tried a cigar every day than tried a cigarette,” according to the FDA statement.

Smokers are more likely to quit if these products are gone

The FDA stated that when these rules are finalized, they will improve public health by “increasing the likelihood of cessation” for menthol smokers and “increasing the likelihood that existing cigar smokers may quit.” 

Research shows that many smokers want to quit. For example, according to a 2018 Truth Initiative survey, 44.5% of Black American menthol smokers surveyed reported that they would try to quit if menthol cigarettes were removed from the market. 

“The authority to adopt tobacco product standards is one of the most powerful tools Congress gave the FDA and the actions we are proposing can help significantly reduce youth initiation and increase the chances that current smokers quit. It is clear that these efforts will help save lives,” said FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf. 

The rules must undergo a review period and face resistance from the tobacco industry

Now that the proposed rules have been released, a public comment period will begin on May 4. It is expected that tobacco companies will aggressively fight these rules. The tobacco industry, despite its rhetoric to be part of the public health solution to end smoking, historically obstructs and delays public health policies to reduce tobacco use.

For example, while the FDA has made clear that enforcement will be focused on manufacturers and retailers and will not make individual possession or use illegal, the tobacco industry continues to aggressively push false claims that the removal of menthol cigarettes from the market will put Black Americans at greater risk from law enforcement. These claims blatantly attempt to exploit a serious racial justice issue in our country for commercial gain.

“The FDA’s life-saving decision, when finalized, will protect young people and future generations from nicotine addiction and reduce health inequities, especially among Black Americans. For decades, the tobacco industry has strategically and aggressively targeted Black communities with predatory marketing campaigns that have grown their business so that 88.5% of Black smokers use menthol products, worsening health disparities,” said Robin Koval, CEO & President of Truth Initiative.

“The proposed rules issued by the FDA are not the end but just the beginning. What happens next is critical. The agency must act with expediency throughout the comment and review period to issue a final rule that rapidly removes these products from the market.” Read the full statement from Truth Initiative.