The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it will seek a ban on the sale of menthol-flavored cigarettes.
The announcement came as the agency officially released a detailed plan to also restrict the sale of flavored electronic cigarettes. It also wants to ban flavored cigars.
In a statement, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb says the moves are aimed at fighting smoking among young people. Flavored e-cigarettes, menthol-flavored tobacco cigarettes and flavored cigars are all popular among teenagers.
"Today, I'm pursuing actions aimed at addressing the disturbing trend of youth nicotine use and continuing to advance the historic declines we've achieved in recent years in the rates of combustible cigarette use among kids," Gottlieb says.
While cigarette smoking has hit a record low in the United States, vaping has been skyrocketing. That trend has raised concerns that a new generation of young people will become addicted to nicotine.
Gottlieb says the moves were prompted by new data showing a 78 percent increase in e-cigarette use among high school students and a 48 percent increase among middle school students, from 2017 to 2018.
"These data shock my conscience," Gottlieb says.
The ban on menthol, in particular, has been long sought by public health authorities and antismoking advocates. The concern is that the flavoring masks the harshness of tobacco smoke, making it easier for people to start smoking.
"I believe these menthol-flavored products represent one of the most common and pernicious routes by which kids initiate on combustible cigarettes," Gottlieb says.
Menthol cigarettes are especially popular among African-Americans, leading some to charge that tobacco companies have been using the flavoring to target minorities.
Several groups, including the NAACP, endorsed the FDA's plan even before it was officially announced. "For decades, data have shown that the tobacco industry has successfully and intentionally marketed mentholated cigarettes to African Americans and particularly African American women as 'replacement smokers,' " the NAACP said in a statement.
Several cigarette companies that market menthol cigarettes didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have vigorously opposed any effort to ban menthol cigarettes.
"We continue to believe that a total ban on menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars would be an extreme measure not supported by the science and evidence," said a statement from Altria Group Inc., maker of Marlboro Menthol.
The proposed ban will require a lengthy rule-making process by the FDA before it can go into effect.
Antismoking groups hailed the announcement.
"FDA's decision to move forward with a ban on menthol cigarettes is one of the most significant public health actions that the FDA has taken in years and will have a greater impact on the death and disease caused by tobacco in the United States than almost any other single action," says Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
"Menthol cigarettes are the single most important pathway to get kids to start smoking in the United States. It makes sense because what it does is coat your throat. It makes it much easier to get used to the harshness of tobacco smoke," Myers says.
Some opponents of a menthol ban have argued that it could create an underground market for menthol cigarettes. But Myers and others dismiss that concern.
While Myers praised the FDA's new restrictions on e-cigarette flavorings, he called for the agency to go further and completely ban the flavorings. According to the plan released Thursday, the FDA would continue to allow adults to buy flavored e-cigarettes.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Food and Drug Administration today announced plans to ban menthol cigarettes. As NPR health correspondent Rob Stein reports, this move is the latest effort by the FDA to try to fight smoking by young people.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Cigarette smoking has hit a record low, but millions of Americans still smoke. And vaping has become wildly popular among teenagers, raising fears a new generation is getting hooked on nicotine. So the FDA announced several steps today aimed at fighting smoking among young people, including a plan to ban menthol cigarettes.
SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Menthol is pernicious. Menthol is an on-ramp to smoking for kids.
STEIN: That's FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. He says menthol makes it easier for kids to start smoking.
GOTTLIEB: The burning, the coughing that comes with that first cigarette or starting on tobacco is masked by the menthol. And so the menthol becomes a very pernicious tool by which it becomes easier for children to start smoking.
STEIN: The FDA wants to ban flavored cigars that appeal to kids, too, and is imposing tough new restrictions on the sale of flavored electronic cigarettes to make it much harder for kids to start vaping.
GOTTLIEB: An alarming number of kids are becoming addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes, and the primary vehicle by which these products have appealed to kids are the fruity flavors. And we need to address that.
STEIN: The moves are being hailed by antismoking activists. Matthew Myers is the president of the Center for Tobacco-Free Kids. He wishes the FDA was banning flavored e-cigarettes altogether, even for adults, but welcomes the menthol ban.
MATTHEW MYERS: FDA's decision to move forward with a ban on menthol cigarettes is one of the most significant public health actions that the FDA has taken in years and will have a greater impact on the death and disease caused by tobacco in the United States than almost any other single action.
STEIN: The menthol ban is also being welcomed by advocates for African-Americans. Menthol cigarettes are especially popular among blacks. Carol McGruder is the co-chair of the African-American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. She charges tobacco companies have long targeted blacks with menthol brands.
CAROL MCGRUDER: So they're more popular because they were - you know, they preyed upon us. So they had media campaigns. They used Ebony and Jet magazine, you know, had Newport advertising and Kool advertising in every edition. And given all the other things - the other issues that African-Americans have to deal with, it was just - we were just very easy prey.
STEIN: Cigarette companies deny those charges and object to any efforts to ban menthol. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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