The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has acted to ban the selling of mint-flavored cigarettes, dealing a big blow to the tobacco industry. The prohibition has been actively advocated for by public health and civil rights organizations, noting the excessive risks of menthol cigarettes to black Americans.

Menthol, flavored cigarettes ban sparkes debate 

Critics of the ban argued that the prohibition would lead to illegal sales and further confrontations with law enforcement. More than a third of cigarette sales in the United States will be affected by the new restriction.

Implementing a definitive decision will take months, if not years. The FDA's decision came on the verge of the deadline for the department to respond to a federal complaint filed by public health organizations challenging the ban.

Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock cited many reports on menthol's negative consequences in saying that banning the taste could help save lives and fix health inequalities faced by communities of color, low-income groups, and LGBTQ+ people. Many of whom are much more likely to consume these tobacco products. The federal agency has stated that it would aim to outlaw all flavored cigars in its decision. It did not say much about menthol-flavored e-cigarettes.

According to BBC News, Congress is not required to approve a ban on menthol cigarettes, but it would not happen immediately and may take years. The FDA now begins a lengthy rule-making process, which will require a public consultation period as a result of its decision. Tobacco firms are expected to file a slew of court objections to the final legislation. 

Anti-smoking organizations argue that a ban is long overdue, but the campaign against flavored cigarette products has been slow. Tobacco use has decreased dramatically in the United States over the years. But the number of smokers who use menthol cigarettes has increased, especially among young people and in black communities. 

Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that African Americans smoke fewer cigarettes and begin at a later age than white smokers. However, they die at much higher rates from tobacco-related diseases like cancer and heart disease.

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Opponents of the ban, including black leaders such as Al Sharpton, have said that excluding a product that is common among African Americans is racist. They caution that making these products illegal could create an online market of buyers and distributors, as well as more tense encounters between law enforcement and young black men.

The decision comes after recent measures in 2009 that prohibited the sale of other flavored cigarettes. During the Trump administration, the FDA made a similar action in 2018 to outlaw menthol cigarettes, but the ban did not go into effect. The FDA said menthol hides the harshness and offensive flavors of tobacco products, making them easy to use. By improving the impact of nicotine, tobacco products containing menthol can be more addictive and challenging to stop, as per the NPR.

According to the CDC, African Americans have the most significant menthol cigarette usage among all racial and ethnic groups. The FDA said about 18.6 million people in the United States smoke menthol cigarettes. Still, use is uneven, with menthol cigarettes being used by about 85 percent of Black smokers than 30 percent of white smokers.

White House aware that cigarettes ban could spark racial discrimination

The White House has acknowledged that it is "aware" of civil rights activists' warnings that a ban on menthol cigarettes will overwhelmingly harm people of color, Daily Mail reported. Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House Deputy Press Secretary, said Thursday that the Biden administration is taking "seriously" the questions raised about the proposed ban of the product common among black smokers.

The step is controversial, with civil rights leaders and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) arguing this week that it would lead to further policing and racial profiling against African-Americans. According to Jean-Pierre, an FDA ban would not criminalize the smoking product for people but rather for companies.

In a letter sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra this week ahead of the FDA's decision, the ACLU, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice, and 24 other similar organizations cautioned that a ban would have "strong social justice consequences." They said that since the product is more common with black people, this will lead to more black people being targeted by law enforcement.

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