Public health advocates have long sought a menthol ban. When the landmark Tobacco Control Act passed in 2009, giving the F.D.A. the authority to regulate tobacco products, menthol was exempted from the tobacco flavors that would be banned.
The exception rankled public health groups and a cadre of former U.S. cabinet health secretaries, who noted the 47,000 Black lives lost each year to smoking-related disease. Allowing menthol cigarettes to remain on the market “caves to the financial interests of tobacco companies and discriminates against African Americans,” the health secretaries wrote in a letter to the Senate, when the tobacco control law was moving through Congress.
The law left the matter in the hands of the F.D.A. and its advisers, who took incremental steps forward. Agency advisers in 2011 said removing menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health, but stopped short of calling for a ban. Two years later, the F.D.A. said menthol made it easier to start smoking and harder to quit, seeking comment on “potential regulation.”
A half decade passed before Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the F.D.A. commissioner at the time, announced his intent to seek a menthol cigarette ban in 2018. He left the agency before achieving that goal. Last year, the agency said it would pursue the ban again, as well as eliminating flavors in the small, mass-produced cigars that are popular with Black and Latino teenagers.
White House records show recent meetings with supporters of a ban, including the American Heart Association and American Academy of Pediatrics. The Public Law Health Center and others left officials with a review of Canada’s experience with banning menthol cigarettes in 2017, which led to 59 percent of menthol smokers picking up unflavored cigarettes, 20 percent of the menthol smokers quitting and nearly the same proportion continuing to buy them on Native reservations, where they can still be sold.
Business groups including Americans for Tax Reform and the Tax Foundation warned White House officials of losing federal and state tax dollars — as much as $6.6 billion in the first year of a menthol cigarette ban.
Though supporters of the ban say it is an important step toward reducing disease inequities in the United States, the step has, to some degree, divided Black communities. The Rev. Al Sharpton has sharply criticized it, and recently secured a meeting with White House officials along with King & Spalding, a lobbying firm with an extensive record of advocating for RAI Services Company, the cigarette maker formerly known as R.J. Reynolds.