The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it will propose a ban on menthol-flavored cigarettes in the United States, which would be a huge blow to future tobacco sales.
Menthol is the last allowable flavor for cigarettes. According to the FDA, menthol cigarettes have been disproportionately used by youth, people of color and low-income communities. The vast majority of Black smokers favor menthol cigarette brands, and Black men currently have the highest rates of lung cancer in the country.
“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,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, in a press release.
This decision was in response to a citizens’ petition filed in 2013. A court had ordered a response by the agency by Thursday.
However, Jefferies analyst Owen Bennett said this proposal would take years to reach a conclusion as there would need to be sufficient evidence from both sides, which could be difficult.
“For menthol, if we do see a proposed rule, it could take years to final rule, due to a watertight evidence package that would need to be put together … the FDA itself saying in the past there has not been enough evidence,” he said in a report, adding that major tobacco companies could fight back in response, which would add more time.
This decision comes after years of deliberation from public health officials in order to help transition smokers to less harmful methods, such as noncombustible products, or quit smoking altogether.
Menthol cigarettes make up about a third of all cigarettes sold in the U.S. The leading brands are Newport, which is owned by British American Tobacco’s R.J. Reynolds, and Kool, which is owned by Imperial Tobacco’s ITG Brands.
British American Tobacco controls a whopping 66% share of the menthol market, while Altria holds a 26% share and Imperial has an 8% share, according to a report from Bernstein analyst Callum Elliott.
Altria’s business is less exposed to the menthol sales, with only about 17% of its volume coming this category, Elliott estimated. It would be a bigger blow for British American since more than half of its cigarette volume comes from the category, Elliott said.
Imperial Brands said the FDA’s decision was “disappointing,” but expected. Menthol makes up about 30% of its volume, according to Elliott.
“We believe the rulemaking process will reveal that there is no clear scientific evidence to support a federal menthol and flavor ban. We are hopeful that FDA will follow the law and prioritize sound policy and science over political pressure,” the company said.
Altria, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, warned of the potential for a ban to cause an illegal market to spring up.
“We share the common goal of moving adult smokers from cigarettes to potentially less harmful alternatives, but prohibition does not work,” said Altria in a statement. “Criminalizing menthol will lead to serious unintended consequences.”
Reynolds and its parent British American Tobacco weren’t immediately available for comment.
If implemented, the proposal would be a huge win for anti-tobacco advocates who have long seen flavored cigarettes as a way for consumers to be introduced to smoking.
Smoking tobacco products is the leading cause of preventable death in the country, the FDA said. It plans to implement product standards to eliminate menthol in cigarettes within the next year, as well as eliminating all characterizing 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 flavor. The mint flavor of menthol cools the throat and makes it easier for smokers to tolerate the flavor of tobacco.
The FDA cited a Tobacco Control study that suggests a ban could help smokers quit. It tracked behavior after menthol bans went into place in Canada. The FDA says it suggest that in the first 13 to 17 months, a U.S. ban could prompt an additional 923,000 smokers, including 230,000 African Americans, to quit.
Last week, the Biden administration also announced that it is considering capping nicotine levels in cigarettes, which is another move that the FDA has been trying to push for years. However, today’s announcement on menthol cigarettes do not include any mention of lowering nicotine levels.
Shares of Altria and British American Tobacco, Reynolds’ parent, were both down nearly 2% in midday trading.