Medical Examiner

Will a New Study on Menthol Cigarettes’ Harm to Black Americans Finally Push the FDA to Act?

A pack of Newport menthols.
A pack of Newport menthols. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Tobacco researchers have known for decades that mentholated cigarettes do outsized harm to Black Americans. And now, a recent study from University of Michigan public health researchers David Mendez and Thuy Le bolsters that understanding.

According to the study, there were 157,000 smoking-related premature deaths among Black Americans, and 1.5 million years of life lost, due to menthol smoking between 1980 and 2018. That’s 12 percent of the U.S. population shouldering 41 percent and 50 percent, respectively, of the total damage caused by menthols during that time frame. Additionally, 1.5 million Black non-smokers who experimented with menthols during their teen years ended up becoming smokers, the study found. The researchers believe this is the first scientific study to quantify the specific level of damage that menthols, the preferred cigarette flavoring among Black smokers, have caused throughout Black communities.

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Menthol flavoring itself isn’t deadly, but a more pleasant smoking experience certainly can be. Menthol’s presence doesn’t alter the nicotine levels of a cigarette, but it makes smoking easier to start and, thus, harder to quit. The flavoring also allows for more nicotine to be absorbed, the smoke to be inhaled deeper and with more ease. (Earlier this year, I described smoking non-mentholated cigarettes as “inhaling smog.”)

The danger of menthols has long been concentrated in Black communities, where the consequences of malicious marketing by the tobacco companies collides with pre-existing health inequities. More than 85 percent of Black smokers smoke menthols, as opposed to 30 percent of white Americans. Black smokers remain more likely to die from tobacco-related causes even though they smoke fewer cigarettes per day than white Americans and attempt to quit more frequently. The backdrop here is limited smoking cessation programs in Black communities, medical racism, inadequate healthcare access, and an onslaught of predatory tobacco advertisements, such as associating smoking menthols with being cool.

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This new study could help bolster a long effort to get the Food and Drug Administration to ban menthol flavoring in cigarettes. The agency announced on October 4 that they are still in the process of issuing proposed product standards that would effectively ban menthol flavoring in cigarettes. This is the latest development in a decade-long saga of the FDA attempting to ban menthols and the tobacco companies suing the agency to stop that from happening. “What we’re trying to do is give ammunition to the FDA so they can make the most reasonable decision. The FDA can only act if they have scientific evidence,” said Mendez, one of the author’s of the study.

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“Enough is enough. Now we have the smoking gun,” said Phillip Gardiner, a public health researcher who has investigated smoking for decades. “There’s no reason that the FDA should be stalling around any longer.”

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University of California San Francisco researcher Valerie Yerger was even more blunt about the data. “This analysis demonstrates the contribution of menthol cigarettes toward the annihilation of a people already under siege by a racist society and its myriad of inequities, governmental policies and political domination,” she wrote in an editorial last month. “Institutionalised racism, its long historical impact, and the associated, yet unresolved, intergenerational trauma experienced by black people in America have made them vulnerable to the clever marketing and predatory dumping of mentholated tobacco products in their communities.”

Friday Oct. 15: This post has been updated for clarity.

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