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5 important things to know about the removal of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars from the market

Menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars may be removed from store shelves if the Food and Drug Administration follows through on its promise to start the process of eliminating these products from the market.

Last April, the FDA announced that it would take significant actions to prohibit the sale of menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars, pledging to begin the rulemaking process within the year. Menthol cigarettes, which are the only flavored cigarettes still on the market, are easier to start and more difficult to quit. The flavor reduces the harshness of cigarette smoke due to its characteristic cooling effects on the mouth and throat and suppresses the coughing reflex. Cigars, especially little cigars and cigarillos, are sold in menthol and an array of other dessert, candy, and alcoholic beverage flavors such as cotton candy, gummy bear, and strawberry margarita. They also often look just like cigarettes and can be sold individually, making them cheaper and appealing to youth and other price-sensitive groups.

Here are five important things to know about eliminating menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars from the market.

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Menthol cigarettes and little cigars are very popular among youth

Flavors play a significant role in enticing youth and young adults to try and use tobacco products. An estimated 2.53 million high school and middle school students reported using tobacco products in the past 30 days, according to the 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey. Nearly 700,000 [or 690,000] smoked cigarettes. Among those who used cigarettes, 38.8% smoked menthols.

Menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, both considered “starter” products, have caused enormous harm to public health in the United States. Menthol cigarettes alone are responsible for over 265,000 new smokers each year and nearly 10,000 premature deaths over the 38-year period from 1980 to 2018, according to a February 2021 study published in Tobacco Control.

Eliminating these products is both a public health issue and a social justice issue

It’s no accident that nearly 9 in 10 Black smokers use menthol cigarettes. The tobacco industry has strategically and aggressively targeted the community with menthol cigarettes for decades, including placing more advertising in predominantly black neighborhoods and in publications that are popular with black audiences, as well as appropriating culture in marketing, including sponsoring events such as jazz and hip-hop festivals. Additionally, tobacco companies have made strategic financial contributions and worked to align themselves with black leaders and politicians. Tobacco companies have also targeted the African-American community with flavored cigars, resulting in a disproportionately high rates of cigar smoking among African-American youth.

They have skirted regulation and exploited loopholes

A 2009 federal law that gave the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products also prohibited the use of flavors in cigarettes with one big exception: menthol cigarettes. Menthol has also been repeatedly excluded from local regulations that restrict the sale of flavored tobacco products.

Since the FDA did not have jurisdiction over cigars in 2009 when it eliminated non-menthol, flavored cigarettes from the market, manufacturers took advantage of this loophole and began to heavily market and promote cigar products in flavors. A study found that many youth simply switched to flavored cigars and menthol cigarettes when other flavored cigarettes were no longer available.

The public supports a menthol cigarette ban

Truth Initiative research shows most adults (56.4%) support a federal ban on menthol cigarettes. Support was especially strong among African Americans (60.5%) and other groups who have been targeted by the tobacco industry, including women (62.5%) and Hispanic/Latinos (69.3%). While nonsmokers showed more support for banning menthol cigarettes, at 64.8%, more than 1 in 4 current menthol smokers (28.5%) favored a ban.

The tobacco industry aggressively fights to keep them on the market

The tobacco industry – despite its rhetoric to be part of the public health solution to end smoking – historically obstructs and delays public health policies to reduce tobacco use. It mounts aggressive opposition campaigns to menthol sales restrictions and often warns of severe economic losses for communities. The tobacco industry is also pushing false claims that a ban on menthol cigarettes will subject Black Americans to more law enforcement abuse, even though the FDA’s announcement made it clear that agency enforcement will be focused on manufacturers and retailers, not individual consumers.


*An earlier version of this article misstated the number of middle and high schoolers who smoke. It is 38% of those who smoke use menthol cigarettes, not 38% of all middle and high schoolers who smoke overall. We regret the error.