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Biden administration takes step towards banning menthol cigarettes and cigars

Consumers who smoke the products won't be in trouble, but the companies that produce them might be

Cigarettes zoomed in
Photo (c) Douglas Sacha - Getty Images
The U.S. government’s effort to curb cigarette consumption picked up speed on Thursday when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed rules prohibiting menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.

The agency said its goals are to prevent youth initiation, significantly reduce tobacco-related disease and death, and increase the number of smokers who quit smoking altogether.

If enacted, the new standards the FDA is proposing will prohibit menthol as a “characterizing flavor” in cigarettes and prohibit all characterizing flavors (other than tobacco) in cigars. The move comes almost a year from an earlier move by the Biden administration to consider rules that would lower nicotine levels in cigarettes.

“The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. “Additionally, the proposed rules represent an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.” 

According to Statista, the share of cigarettes in the U.S. that include menthol has been climbing steadily for years. In 2001, menthol cigarettes accounted for 26% of cigarette sales and grew to a 37% share in 2019. The company that will likely take the biggest hit from the FDA’s move is Reynolds American, which, with Newport leading the way, counts on menthol cigarettes for nearly 50% of its sales.

Reducing smoking rates

The FDA says its studies show that there would be a 15% reduction in smoking within 40 years if menthol cigarettes were no longer available. Those studies also estimate that 324,000 to 654,000 smoking-attributable deaths overall (92,000 to 238,000 among African Americans) would be avoided over the course of 40 years. The agency paid great attention to the youth market in its research.

“Characterizing flavors in cigars, such as strawberry, grape, cocoa and fruit punch, increase appeal and make cigars easier to use, particularly among youth and young adults,” the FDA said. “More than a half million youth in the U.S. use flavored cigars, and in recent years more young people tried a cigar every day than tried a cigarette.”

The agency said its proposal does not prohibit an individual consumer from possessing or using a menthol tobacco product. However, it said its enforcement would address any company that manufactures, distributes, or sells such products within the U.S. that are not in compliance with applicable requirements. 

Beginning May 4, 2022, the American public can comment on the proposed rules that the FDA will consider for future action.

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