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VCU expert: FDA proposed ban on menthol cigarettes ‘historic and long overdue’

Mignonne Guy, Ph.D., said the FDA’s proposal to ban menthol cigarettes would save lives, particularly those of Black Americans. (Getty Images)
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The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday proposed a ban on sales of menthol-flavored cigarettes in the United States.

Mignonne Guy, Ph.D., an associate professor and chair of the Department of African American Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, studies the social, behavioral, biological and environmental determinants that contribute to health inequities among minority populations and other marginalized groups. Her research also includes examining the ways in which structural racism is reproduced in academia and, in particular, in biomedical and health inequities research.

Guy is the recipient of a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to develop an equity-centered road map focused on eliminating tobacco-related inequities among Black tobacco users. And she was recently appointed to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee, which reviews and evaluates safety, dependence and health issues relating to tobacco products and provides appropriate advice, information and recommendations to the commissioner of food and drugs.

Guy called the FDA’s proposal “historic and long overdue” and said it would save lives, particularly those of Black Americans.

What is your reaction to the FDA’s proposal to ban menthol cigarettes?

By issuing proposed rules as stated yesterday, to prohibit menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars, the Biden Administration and the FDA is taking historic and long-overdue action to protect all of our nation’s children, advance health equity and save lives, especially among Black Americans and other populations that have been targeted by the tobacco industry and suffered enormous harm from the predatory marketing of these products. For decades, the tobacco industry has deliberately targeted Black communities with marketing for menthol cigarettes, with tragic consequences. The industry also uses these flavored products to lure children, adolescents and other young people into a deadly addiction. If properly scrutinized, further expanded and carefully implemented, we have the potential to put an end to these predatory and deadly practices.

When I committed to studying tobacco as a graduate student, it was solely for this moment. I learned very early on that the tobacco industry manipulated menthol products to increase their addictiveness, that they targeted Black, low-income White, LGBTQ+, and young people to use these products – that, if used as intended, they would likely die from. Not only are menthol cigarettes more addictive than others, but they also make it harder to quit smoking. Industry heavily markets these products in specific neighborhoods – specifically Black neighborhoods which is made easier by remnants of residential segregation and redlining – and they lure smokers by using larger and greater numbers of advertisements.

My goal was to contribute to the body of evidence that would lead to the ban of menthol cigarettes and put a stop to the industry preying on Black communities. Given the vast resources that the tobacco industry has and the tactics that they employ, I could never have imagined that we would get to this point. While I will continue to be concerned about what the final ruling will include and if it will ever happen (we are still waiting for warning statements on cigarette packages to be implemented), I am more alarmed by the current onslaught of misinformation that is being generated and disseminated on social media and various other platforms by the tobacco industry that explicitly targets menthol smokers and, more specifically, the Black community. Thus, I would like to address two major points:

  • The tobacco industry has started an all-out war to fight a prohibition on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, including pushing blatant misinformation and disinformation that it will exacerbate existing hyper- and over-policing of Black communities and subject Black Americans to more abuse at the hands of law enforcement. The industry’s claims are explicitly racist tactics that are intended to scare and manipulate Black communities into working against their own interest in saving black lives. They are meant to inflame existing well-founded concerns in the Black community. These claims are completely false, without merit and must be rejected.

    I have personally read the notice in the federal register, and the FDA has made it crystal clear that its prohibition on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars will apply to manufacturers and retailers – it will not make it illegal for individual smokers to possess or use these products. This is the same approach that the FDA has enforced the current prohibition on other flavored cigarettes and on sales of tobacco products to minors. FDA officials have stated, “The FDA cannot and will not enforce against individual consumer possession or use of menthol cigarettes or any tobacco product.” The proposed rule states: “FDA’s enforcement will only address manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers, and retailers. This regulation does not prohibit a person's possession or use of these products, and FDA cannot and will not enforce against individual consumers for possession or use of menthol cigarettes. In addition, state and local law enforcement agencies do not independently enforce the FD&C Act. These entities do not and cannot take enforcement actions against any violation of chapter IX of the Act or this regulation on FDA’s behalf.”
    • Racial bias in policing is an urgent problem that we absolutely must address. It must stop. However, the tobacco industry’s targeting of the Black community with menthol cigarettes and the enormous harm it has caused must also be addressed. In order to save Black lives, we can and must do both.
    • For decades, the tobacco industry has funded organizations and prominent spokespeople – some that are from the Black community – to try to leverage real concern about law enforcement abuses into opposition to prohibiting menthol cigarettes. These connections were recently detailed in an investigation by the Los Angeles Times and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. This fearmongering cannot hide the fact that it is the industry itself that preyed on and caused so much harm and death to Black Americans through the targeted marketing of menthol cigarettes. This is not a question of criminalizing Black smokers; it is a question of saving Black lives.