Menthol is an equity issue that the FDA has been considering for more than a decade. It is the last special flavor allowed in cigarettes in the US. It was carved out of the 2009 Tobacco Control Act that banned all other flavored cigarettes and also gave the FDA the authority to regulate the tobacco industry to protect public health. The law also required FDA to conduct and fund research on menthol.
After several years of investigation and public input from hundreds of thousands of interested parties, the Public Health Law Center and other groups filed a citizen petition requesting the agency prohibit menthol in cigarettes. A 2020 lawsuit alleged the FDA unreasonably delayed issuing a final response. In 2021, the FDA announced it would pursue rulemaking.
About 18.6 million people smoke menthols in the United States. That’s about 36% of all smokers, according to the FDA, and a disproportionate number are people of color. The tobacco industry has heavily marketed menthol products to those communities.
About 30% of White smokers choose menthols, but they are the cigarette of choice for nearly 85% of smokers who are Black. About 40% of women smoke menthols, compared with 31% of men, according to the FDA.
LGBTQ people are also significantly more likely to smoke menthols. A 2013 study that looked at data from the CDC’s 2009-10 National Adult Tobacco survey found that 36% of LGBTQ smokers chose menthols, compared with 29.3% of straight smokers.
More than half of children who smoke use menthol cigarettes, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A survey of adults who smoke found that the majority started with menthols. Other studies said children who smoked menthol cigarettes were more likely to become regular smokers than occasional smokers.
Smoking rates in the US reached an all-time low in 2018, according to the CDC, but smoking is still the top cause of preventable death, disease and disability in the country. In general, cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the US, including more than 41,000 deaths from secondhand smoke.
Cutting out menthol in cigarettes and cigars could have a significant effect on the number of smokers, the FDA said. By one estimate, it could even prevent 650,000 premature deaths over the next 40 years.
Another study projects that an elimination of menthol as a cigarette flavor would lead 923,000 people to quit smoking, including 230,000 African Americans, in the first year and a half.
An FDA ban on menthol and flavored cigars won’t go into effect right away.
The next step will be a comment period, and the agency is expected to take time to review the comments before a rule becomes finalized. The FDA said it can’t speculate on when that might happen. Public health experts believe that tobacco companies will also try to stop the ban by suing the agency.