Menthol Cigarette Ban Will Save Millions of Black Lives

By Ben Chandler, Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky

The Food and Drug Administration’s plan to ban menthol cigarettes will, simply put, save millions of black lives in this country. Although African American and white adults smoke at about the same rates, nearly nine in 10 black adults who smoke choose menthol cigarette, more than three times the rate of white adults. Black youth also smoke menthol at a higher rate than their white counterparts – 95 percent to 51 percent. Menthol cigarettes are linked to higher rates of disease and lower quit rates, so the black community bears a much higher share of smoking-related illness and death.

Nearly 45 percent of African American menthol smokers said they would try to quit if the FDA banned menthol cigarettes. Thus, the quicker the FDA implements the menthol cigarette ban, the quicker that millions of Black adults will either quit smoking entirely or switch to newer, less harmful menthol e-cigarettes. As a result, we will see a significant reduction in tobacco-related illness and disease among Black adults, as well as among the children for whom they are parents and role models, in the future.

The FDA banned flavored cigarettes except menthol in 2009, because flavors were shown to be especially appealing to youth and young adults.

The agency said at the time that it would study whether to add menthol to the list of banned flavors. Nine years later, even while smoking rates have declined, millions of today’s adults who first tried a menthol cigarette as a teen or young adult, now have become adult smokers.  And tobacco use remains America’s leading cause of preventable death; it is responsible for 8,900 deaths each year in Kentucky.  

In fact, menthol cigarettes do appeal to kids. Nearly half of adolescents who smoke say they use menthol cigarettes, compared to 40.8 percent of young adults and 32.5 percent of those 26 and older. Menthol makes smoking less irritating so they’re more attractive as a starter product.

The tobacco industry’s business model is built on continually addicting new customers, and most tobacco use starts before age 18. Tobacco companies have intentionally targeted low-income Black communities with advertising, promotions and price discounts for tobacco – particularly menthol-flavored – products since at least the 1960s. That’s how we got to where we are today.

African American leadership organizations have petitioned the FDA for years to ban menthol cigarettes. We agree. We urge the FDA to move as quickly as possible to implement this lifesaving measure.

Ben Chandler is president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization advocating for policies that will improve the health of all Kentuckians.