The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced a new proposed product standard that would ban menthol-flavored cigarettes and any flavored cigars. The FDA stated in their April 28 announcement that these bans have the potential to significantly decrease the rates of disease and death caused by burned tobacco products by making these products less appealing to underage smokers.

According to the FDA, menthol is a “flavor additive with a minty taste and aroma that reduces the irritation and harshness of smoking,” making it a dangerous inroad for new smokers to become addicted. Menthol is also the last non-tobacco flavor available in the U.S. following a ban of all other flavors in 2009. Additionally, menthol interacts with the brain, making the effects of nicotine stronger and more addicting. 

The FDA announcement states that as of 2019, there were more than 18.5 million cigarette smokers 12 and older who use menthol cigarettes. The demographics with the highest use of menthol cigarettes were youths, young adults, and African Americans. 

The agency cited modeling studies that show an estimated 15% reduction in smoking over the next 40 years if menthol cigarettes were to be pulled from shelves. Those same studies also estimated that there would be between 324,000 to 654,000 fewer smoking deaths over the same time period if menthol cigarettes were banned.

The FDA announcement also included taking action against flavored cigars. Unlike cigarettes, cigars feature a number of appealing flavors including “strawberry, grape, cocoa and fruit punch.” 

According to the FDA, these flavors “increase appeal and make cigars easier to use” for younger people and new smokers. The agency also noted that according to their data, more than 500,000 youths use flavored cigars. In recent years, more minors are trying cigars than cigarettes.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in the statement, “The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit.” In addition to helping reduce youth tobacco use, Secretary Becerra stated that the proposed rules would be ”an important step to advance health equity by significantly reducing tobacco-related health disparities.”

Tobacco use is the leading cause of cancer and death from cancer, with 30% of all cancer deaths in the United States being caused by smoking. By reducing the appeal of cigarettes, the FDA is continuing to pursue its goal of trying to reduce cancer deaths in the U.S. by 50%. 

FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert M. Califf strongly advocated for the proposed initiative. In the FDA statement, he said, “The authority to adopt tobacco product standards is one of the most powerful tools Congress gave the FDA and the actions we are proposing can help significantly reduce youth initiation and increase the chances that current smokers quit. It is clear that these efforts will help save lives.”

While the FDA may have the power to adopt product standards, including the power to ban certain flavors of tobacco products, the agency was insistent on the limits of its power. If passed, the FDA “cannot and will not enforce against individual consumers for possession or use of menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars.” Instead, the FDA would go after distributors, importers, manufacturers, retailers, and wholesalers who fail to comply with the regulations.

The FDA also stated that state and local law enforcement agencies would not enforce any FDA regulations on the agency’s behalf. In fact, the proposed regulation would not criminalize or prohibit the possession or use of flavored cigarettes or cigars. 

These latest tobacco bans parallel a similar movement by the FDA against e-cigarette companies like Juul Labs. Juul is the chief defendant in a number of lawsuits filed by individuals, cities, and states that accuse the corporation of advertising its flavored products to minors.