Finally, the Food and Drug Administration announced on April 29 a long-overdue proposed rule-making process to remove menthol from cigarettes and flavor additives from cigars in this country. But any action will take months to years.
Currently about 18.6 million Americans smoke menthol-flavored tobacco. Of all Black smokers, nearly 85% smoke menthol cigarettes, compared to 30% of white smokers. We know, too, that 67% of overall health disparities in mortality in African American men are related to their high smoking prevalence.
Let’s be truthful, menthol products represent the tobacco industry’s predatory marketing of communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use and become addicted by consuming these products.
Menthol increases the appeal of tobacco and facilitates progression to regular smoking, particularly among youth and young adults. Menthol masks unpleasant flavors and harshness of tobacco products, making them easier to start, easier to become addicted, and harder to quit.
If a national sales ban is implemented, research indicates that it would lead to an additional 923,00 smokers quitting, including 230,000 African Americans, just in the first 17 months after taking effect.
Ending menthol product sales would avert about 633,000 deaths, including 237,000 African Americans.
This preliminary action by the FDA is laudable. But, since this process may take months, even years, due to expected push-back by the tobacco industry and their political friends, we should not wait and let our fellow citizens become or remain hooked and die in the meanwhile, especially considering the enhanced complications of tobacco use and COVID-19.
Rather than wait to see if the FDA eventually takes definitive action, Evanston and the Illinois could act now to ban all flavored tobacco products as have San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles County, the states of Massachusetts and California and even other countries, including Canada, Brazil, Ethiopia, and the European Union.
The State of Illinois and Evanston can and should enact a total sales ban immediately, not for possession or use by individuals but only affecting manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers, and retailers – those who profit from these deadly products. Such action would help mitigate some of the disparities in health outcomes for African Americans and benefit our entire population.
Donald Zeigler, Ph.D., is chair of the Evanston Health Advisory Council and chair of the Illinois Advocacy Committee, American Heart Association.