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Why U.S. should ban menthol flavored tobacco products

By David Fetterman, The Mercury News

April 12- “Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the United States” according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Smoking kills more people than alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined.

Cigarettes, cigars, and vapes have been marketed to youth, with flavor options such as cotton candy, cupcake, and tutti-frutti.  The 2009 Tobacco Control Act was effective in banning most fruit- and mint-flavored nicotine vaping products in an effort to reduce teen use, but did not include menthol on its list.

Menthol is one of the last remaining flavors protected by loopholes in the legislation.

The exemption is notable. The tobacco industry markets menthol to youth and minorities with advertising, free products, and discounted coupons.  The tobacco industry’s economic interest in promoting menthol is clear: One-third of tobacco industry profits are derived from mentholated tobacco products.

According to the American Cancer Society and the Heart Association: “leaving menthol-flavored e-cigarettes widely available and completely exempting liquid flavored products…is a capitulation to Big Tobacco and vape shops and gives a green light to the e-cigarette industry to continue to target and addict kids with flavored products.”

Several states have taken steps to remove menthol-flavored products, including California, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.  According to Janet Woodcock,  FDA’s Principal Deputy Commissioner, “Banning menthol — the last allowable flavor — in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products. With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products.”

This is fundamentally a social justice issue.  As reported in Scientific American:  “Although current attention is focused on e-cigarette use, renewed efforts must be placed on eliminating menthol flavoring in all nicotine-containing products including e-cigarettes, cigarettes, cigars, cigarillos and smokeless tobacco. Menthol regulation is not only a tobacco prevention and control issue but also a social justice imperative. Adolescents who use nicotine-containing products prefer menthol flavorings, but there are enormous differences in preferences for menthol among youth of color. Menthol products are preferred by youth from communities who are disproportionately impacted by health inequalities.”

The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council filed a lawsuit to compel the FDA to ban menthol-flavored tobacco products.  The FDA submitted it proposed rule to OMB (Office of Management and Budget).  This is a required step before publicly proposing the rule.  Now is the time to urge the OMB to move on the FDA’s rule to ban menthol-flavored tobacco products.

David Fetterman is president of Fetterman & Associates, an international evaluation consulting firm, specializing in evaluation and tobacco prevention.

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