Death to Menthol: Will a Ban on Menthol Cigarettes Save Thousands of Black Lives?

In April 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a ban preventing the tobacco Industry from using menthol in cigarettes. The ban would also stop the industry from using flavorings such as strawberry, grape, and cocoa, in cigars. With the Biden Administration driving the proposed ban nationally, the FDA is convinced that banning menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars would significantly reduce disease and death in this country, especially in Black communities.

Research has shown that 85% of Black smokers in the United States smoke menthol cigarettes.
“The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adults smokers quit,” said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. “Additionally, the proposed rules represent an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.”

Menthol is a flavored additive ingredient with a minty taste and aroma to mask the irritation and harshness that smoking tobacco causes. Researchers believe menthol cigarettes make it easier for smokers to become addicted and more challenging to quit.

“We are very happy that the FDA announced its proposed ban on menthol cigarettes in April,” said Menou Jones, founder and CEO of Detroit-based Making It Count Community Development Corporation, a non-profit organization created to empower underserved communities. “Now, we hope that the rule banning menthol cigarettes will be extradited and go into effect sooner rather than later to stop menthol cigarettes from being sold in Detroit and other communities.”

Jones also chairs the Detroit-Wayne-Oakland Tobacco Coalition, comprised of approximately 100 members in the region, representing health, medical, business, faith-based, and other entities to ensure that communities have the tools and resources to help prevent the deadly consequences caused by menthol cigarettes.

The FDA was given the authority to regulate the sales and manufacturing of tobacco products in 2009 when President Obama signed the Tobacco Cosmetic Act into law. In 2010, the FDA banned all flavored cigarettes, but menthol was excluded.

One of the initiatives the Coalition has implemented to help ban menthol cigarettes is “No Menthol Sunday,” a faith-based project created to bring greater awareness to the dangers of menthol products, particularly in Metro Detroit, where there is a significant African American population. More than 20 churches in Detroit, including Second Ebenezer, Greater Grace Temple, New Destiny Christian Fellowship, and Third New Hope, have embraced the unique initiative aimed at helping communities better understand the issues caused by menthol cigarettes.

The event, held briefly after the conclusion of regular Sunday church services, features comedian Mike Bonner delivering a short sermon rooted in humor but references the seriousness of the late Mike “Menthol” Wilson, a fictional character representing the 45,000 African Americans who die each year from menthol products.

“The church is a foundational institution in the Black community, and our congregants often look to us for moral guidance,” said QuanTez Pressley, lead pastor of Third New Hope Baptist Church. “Consequently, we felt it was our obligation to participate in No Menthol Sunday and believe that a consequential message blended with levity is an effective way to share this kind of sobering news.”

While many advocacy organizations are championing FDA’s proposed ban and anxiously await its enactment, which could be another year, not everyone is on board. Powerful civil rights voices such as Rev. Al Sharpton and Attorney Ben Crump believe the ban could put African Americans in further jeopardy at the hands of law enforcement agencies attempting to enforce the ban in Black communities.

In a New York Times story published on April 28, 2022, the author writes that Sharpton, after meeting with White House officials about the proposed ban, wrote a letter to Susan Rice, the Domestic Policy Council director, saying, “a menthol ban would impose serious risks, including increasing the illegal sale of smuggled, black market menthol cigarettes as well as the street sales of individual menthol cigarettes – loosies – and in turn place menthol smokers at a significant risk of entering the criminal justice system.”

Nevertheless, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, favors the proposed ruling by the Biden Administration and FDA.

“The effects of menthol have been devastating and fatal for far too many Black people,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson in a statement. “Big Tobacco specifically targets our communities, and we are fed up.”

Other national organizations supporting the proposed ban of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars include the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, and more.

When enacted, the FDA has clarified that its proposed ban “cannot and will not be enforced against consumers who possess or use menthol cigarettes. The ban will focus on the manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars.

“The tobacco industry has been a wolf in sheep’s clothing by funding lots of Black events, civil rights organizations, political leaders, and HBCUs, making it difficult to discern that the tobacco industry is, in fact, the No. 1 killer of Black people,” said Jones. “And just like we fight police brutality, we must fight against tobacco-related deaths in the Black community. Detroit has a huge majority Black population, so we must prioritize this as a major issue and bring everybody to the table to protect Black lives.”

For more information about Making It Count Community Development Corporation’s initiatives to end menthol cigarettes in Metro Detroit, log on to www.umakeitcount.org or email Mjones@youmakeitcount.org. To learn more about the national campaign to end menthol cigarettes in Black communities, log on to www.endmenthol.org.

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