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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Why is the FDA seeking to ban menthol cigarettes? 4 questions answered

The FDA has opened a public comment period for the agency’s proposed ban on menthol cigarettes. Epidemiology and global health professor Rafael Meza studies data modeling in disease prevention and cancer risk. David Mendez, who studies smoking cessation and tobacco control policies, is an associate professor of health management and policy. These researchers from the University of Michigan found that over a 38-year period, African Americans suffered the most harmful effects of menthol cigarettes. Now researchers have developed a model to simulate the potential benefits of menthol ban based on studying population trends in tobacco use. As an expert in the behavioral and public health aspects of smoking, he explains the role of menthol in smoking-related illness and death.

What are Menthol Cigarettes?

Menthol is a chemical compound, obtained naturally from peppermint oil or produced synthetically using thymol, a compound in the herb thyme. When tobacco is added to cigarettes, menthol produces a cooling effect in the mouth and throat. Menthol cigarettes have a substantial amount of compounds added to them that give them that distinctive feel and minty taste. Instead of tasting like burning tobacco, menthol cigarettes can bring to mind cough drops or strong breath mints.

Why are menthol cigarettes particularly harmful?

Menthol reduces the harshness of cigarette smoking, making it more palatable to smokers. Most of the users are teenagers and young adults, who are still sensitive to the long-term effects of nicotine on developing brains. Among youth who smoke, about 60% smoke menthol, with an even higher rate among black adolescents. Every year, menthol cigarettes increase the number of regular smokers. Those who start with menthol often continue with them.

Our research shows that the harm from tobacco use continues. In addition to providing young people with a more palatable introduction to smoking, the menthol flavor appears to make them smoke. People who smoke menthol cigarettes smoke longer in their lifetime and are less likely to quit. This translates into hundreds of thousands of additional premature deaths from lung cancer, emphysema and smoking-related diseases, such as heart disease. In our study, we estimated that menthol cigarettes were responsible for 377,000 premature deaths among the US population during the past 40 years.

Menthol cigarettes have led to a particularly high number of negative health outcomes among African Americans.
Bakery/iStock via Getty Images

Why has there been opposition to the FDA’s proposed ban?

Some critics have expressed concern about the potential unintended consequences of the proposed ban, particularly for African American menthol smokers. One concern is that banning menthol cigarettes could lead to black people being arrested for buying or smoking them. Another concern is that the ban could create an illegal market for cigarettes, especially in African American neighborhoods.

But the FDA ban is on the distribution of cigarettes, not on buying, possessing, or smoking them. The agency has made it clear that it cannot and will not impose restrictions on individual consumers of menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars. And Canada’s experience with a similar ban suggests that it is unlikely that an illegal market will emerge.

Most importantly, any negative outcome will be outweighed by considerable health benefits.

How Will Menthol Cigarette Ban Help?

Tobacco control interventions such as cigarette taxes, smoke-free air laws, marketing restrictions and education campaigns have led to a drastic reduction in the prevalence of cigarette smoking since the 1960s. However, the prevalence of menthol cigarette smoking has remained relatively stable since 2000, which highlights the need for interventions specifically targeting menthol cigarettes.

We recently estimated that banning menthol cigarettes in the US would reduce the prevalence of menthol smoking by 15% and prevent 650,000 premature deaths by 2060. The benefits would be particularly substantial among the black population, with an estimated 255,000 premature deaths.

Under the menthol cigarette ban, it is important that menthol cigarette smokers are helped to quit smoking, not simply switch to nonmenthol cigarettes.

World Nation News Desk
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