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

As of October 2023, the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed rules to remove menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars from the market have been finalized and sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review, marking a momentous step toward a major public health victory. This development has been long-awaited since the FDA announced the proposal in April 2021.

Although youth smoking prevalence has declined drastically in the past decade, menthol flavoring plays a large role in why young people start and continue to smoke. According to numerous studies, young people are more likely to smoke a menthol cigarette as their first cigarette rather than a non-menthol cigarette, and those who start with menthol cigarettes first are also more likely to continue smoking. In 2023, 40.4% of middle school and high school students who currently smoked cigarettes reported using menthol cigarettes, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey.

Menthol cigarettes are easier to smoke and more difficult to quit because the flavor reduces the harshness of the cigarette smoke 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. Cigars and cigarillos often look just like cigarettes and can be sold individually, making them cheaper and more 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. In 2023, 2.8 million students reported current use of any tobacco product, with 40.4% of students who currently smoked cigarettes reporting using menthol cigarettes, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey. The survey data also reinforced the role that flavors play in enticing youth to use tobacco products: nearly 9 in 10 youth (grades 6-12) who reported using tobacco products in 2023 used flavored varieties, and menthol cigarettes are the last remaining flavored cigarettes on the market. 

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

It’s no accident that 81% of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes. The tobacco industry has strategically and aggressively targeted Black Americans with menthol cigarettes for decades, including by placing more advertising in predominantly Black neighborhoods and publications, appropriating Black culture in marketing, and by 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 Black community with flavored cigars, resulting in disproportionately high rates of cigar smoking among Black youth.  

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 10.1 million new smokers and 378,000 premature deaths over the 38-year period from 1980 to 2018, according to a February 2021 study published in Tobacco Control. Of those premature deaths, 157,000 were among Black Americans

Tobacco companies have skirted regulations and exploited loopholes

A 2009 federal law that gave the FDA 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 policies to eliminate menthol cigarettes

CDC data collected in 2021 shows that most U.S. adults (62.3%) support policies to eliminate menthol cigarettes, the last remaining flavored cigarette still sold in the U.S. that has long been marketed to Black Americans with predatory tobacco industry tactics. In addition, 57.3% of survey participants supported a policy prohibiting the sale of all tobacco products.  

The tobacco industry aggressively fights to keep menthol cigarettes 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 the removal of 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.

This article was originally published on April 8, 2022.