U.S. Industry Braces for Menthol Announcement

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    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration could announce a detailed proposal for phasing out menthol cigarettes as early as this week.

    On April 21, the White House concluded its review of FDA proposal to ban menthol cigarettes after nearly 40 virtual meetings with outside groups.

    According to an Associated Press report, dozens of interest groups have met with White House staffers to try to persuade them to oppose the proposal.

    Menthol is the only cigarette flavor that wasn’t banned under the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which gave the FDA authority over tobacco products. Menthol cigarettes account for more than one-third of the U.S. cigarette market.

    Health advocates oppose menthol because the ingredient’s “cooling” effect make it easier to start smoking and harder to quit. The health consequences have disproportionally fallen on black smokers, 85 percent of whom use menthols.

    In recent weeks, menthol ban opponents have stepped up their campaign against the proposed measure, meeting with lawmakers and publishing editorials. For example, earlier this month, Guy Bentley of the Reason Foundation warned that banned banning menthol cigarettes is a high-risk strategy.

    All major federal regulations—particularly those that could impact the economy—must be reviewed before publication by the White House Office of Management and Budget. Outside groups and individuals can request a meeting, offering a last chance to try and shape the final product.

    According to the Associated Press, more than half of the budget’s office on the menthol proposal were requested by group that traditionally oppose tobacco restrictions. Correspondence shows the groups raised concerns about unintended consequences of a ban, including increases in illegal market sales and increased policing of Black communities to contraband cigarettes.

    More than a quarter of meeting were reportedly requested by gas station owners, convenience stores and distributors. Members of the Southern Association of Wholesale Distributors, for example, said that some convenience stores could lose a third of their cigarette revenue, forcing them to close and create “food deserts”—geographical areas in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food.

    Other groups, such as the Americans for Tax reform, which has received funding from Altria Group, warned of lost government revenue.

    Health advocates dismiss concerns about over-policing of Black communities and illicit sales. The proposed rules, they say, target distribution rather than possession, and most cigarette smuggling in the U.S. today is across state lines to take advantage of difference in tax rates. If menthol production stops, there will be little supply to smuggle, say health advocates. Canada banned menthol cigarettes in 2018.