The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it would propose a ban on menthol-flavored cigarettes in the US, which would mean a big blow to future tobacco sales.
Menthol is the last permitted flavor for cigarettes. According to the FDA, menthol cigarettes were used disproportionately by adolescents, colored people, and low-income groups. The vast majority of black smokers prefer menthol brands of cigarettes, and black men currently have the highest rates of lung cancer in the country.
“With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce initiation of adolescents, increase the likelihood of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health inequalities that occur among color communities, low-income populations and LGBTQ + people, all of which are far more likely are to use these tobacco products, “said Janet Woodcock, acting FDA commissioner, in a press release.
This decision was a response to a 2013 citizen application. A court had ordered a response from the agency by Thursday.
Years until implementation
However, Jefferies analyst Owen Bennett said that suggestion would take years to reach a conclusion, as it would need sufficient evidence from both sides, which could be difficult.
“If we see a proposed rule for menthol, it could take years to reach the final rule as a waterproof evidence package would have to be put together … the FDA itself has said in the past that there has not been enough evidence,” he said in a report, adding that large tobacco companies might strike back in response, which would mean more time.
This decision was made after years of deliberation by public health officials to help smokers make the transition to less harmful practices such as non-flammable products or smoking cessation altogether.
Menthol cigarettes make up about a third of all cigarettes sold in the United States. The leading brands are Newport, owned by British American Tobacco’s RJ Reynolds, and Kool, owned by Imperial Tobacco’s ITG Brands.
British American Tobacco controls a whopping 66% stake in the menthol market, while Altria has a 26% stake and Imperial an 8% stake, according to a report by Bernstein analyst Callum Elliott.
Altria’s business is less exposed to menthol sales. Elliott estimates that only about 17% of its volume falls into this category. It would be a bigger blow to British American as more than half of its cigarette volume comes from that category, Elliott said.
Imperial Brands said the FDA’s decision was “disappointing” but expected. According to Elliott, menthol makes up about 30% of its volume.
“We believe the rulemaking process will reveal that there is no clear scientific evidence to support a menthol and flavor ban at the federal level. We hope the FDA will comply with the law and prioritize sound policy and science over political pressure,” said the company.
Marlboro cigarette maker Altria has warned of the possibility of a ban that could create an illegal market.
“We share a common goal of switching adult smokers from cigarettes to potentially less harmful alternatives, but the ban is not working,” Altria said in a statement. “The criminalization of menthol will have serious unintended consequences.”
Reynolds and his parent company British American Tobacco were not immediately available for comment.
The argument against flavors
If implemented, the proposal would be of great benefit to anti-tobacco advocates who have long seen flavored cigarettes as a way for consumers to become acquainted with smoking.
Tobacco product smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the country, according to the FDA. It is planned to introduce product standards within the next year to eliminate menthol in cigarettes and to eliminate all distinctive flavors, including menthol, in cigars.
Fourteen percent of all American adults smoked cigarettes in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although smoking rates are similar between black and white populations, black smokers are less likely to quit, which some have attributed to the menthol taste. The mint taste of menthol cools the throat and makes it easier for smokers to tolerate the tobacco taste.
The FDA cited a tobacco control study indicating that a ban could help smokers quit smoking. It pursued behavior after menthol bans were introduced in Canada. The FDA estimates that in the first 13 to 17 months a US ban could induce an additional 923,000 smokers, including 230,000 African Americans, to quit.
Last week, the Biden government also announced it was considering limiting nicotine levels in cigarettes. This is another step that the FDA has been trying to take for years. However, today’s announcement on menthol cigarettes makes no mention of a reduction in nicotine levels.
Altria and British American Tobacco, Reynolds’ parent company, fell nearly 2% in midday trading.
Read the FDA statement here.