Why the FDA Must Ban Menthol Cigarettes

Read the full issue brief here. This post was originally published at the Center for American Progress website.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently considering a ban on the sale and distribution of menthol cigarettes in the United States—a measure that could save thousands of lives each year and drastically cut elevated smoking-related health problems experienced by African Americans as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans who often bear the brunt of smoking-related diseases. For so many reasons, this ban is a no-brainer.

In 2009 Congress directed the FDA to ban all other candy-, fruit-, and spice-flavored cigarettes but they fell short of eliminating menthol flavoring—even though it was believed to be the most widely used and highly addictive of all flavored cigarette additives. Instead, they mandated a comprehensive study to assess the impact of menthol smoking on the health of the general public, especially among our nation’s youth and minorities who smoke menthol cigarettes at the highest rates.

Now, the findings are in and the evidence is conclusive. Menthol cigarettes are hazardous to the public health and should be removed from the marketplace. According to the independent Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee, which performed the study and made recommendations to the FDA last month:

  • Removing menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would greatly benefit the public health.
  • Menthol cigarettes lead to a lifetime of smoking.
  • Smokers of menthol cigarettes find it easier to start and more difficult to quit smoking.
  • Menthol deceives users into the false perception that menthol cigarettes are less harmful than nonmenthol cigarettes.
  • The availability of menthol increases the prevalence of smoking among African Americans.
  • Predatory marketing by tobacco companies to youth, African Americans, and Hispanics also leads to the high prevalence of menthol smoking among these populations.

The need for a menthol ban is further evident when exploring the impact of smoking on gay and transgender Americans. Research shows that gays and transgenders smoke at rates up to twice that of the general U.S. population. And it is estimated that lesbians, gays, and bisexuals are 30 percent to 200 percent more likely to smoke than the rest of the American public, a rate higher than that of all the groups evaluated in the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee study. Alas, no comprehensive data are available on how many gay and transgender Americans smoke menthol-flavored cigarettes or suffer the consequences because national health surveys, and most state-based surveys, too, lack questions of sexual orientation or gender identity. Nonetheless, we can deduce that gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders are just as vulnerable to smoking-related disparities as African Americans and other ethnic minority groups, which is why they should also be treated as a special population in federal health studies.

Certainly, both groups would benefit from a ban on menthol for generations to come. And this is especially the case for gay and transgender people of color, for whom the scourge of smoking menthol-flavored cigarettes only compounds this assault on their health. This issue brief will look at the parallels in smoking-related health “disparities”—health care parlance for elevated ill health among different groups of Americans—faced by adolescents, gays and transgenders, and African Americans; examine why they occur; and highlight how a ban on menthol cigarettes will help bridge the health and wellness gap for everyone.