A new proposed federal ban on menthol-flavored cigarettes would be a “huge landmark” in efforts to reduce cases of lung cancer in the U.S., especially among African Americans who have been targeted by the tobacco industry with menthol cigarette advertising for decades, according to lung cancer expert, Dr. Nina Thomas.
It could take more than a year for health experts from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to fully ban menthol cigarettes, but the decision is critical, said Thomas.
That’s because African American men are at the greatest risk in the U.S. for developing and dying from lung cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And for decades, cigarette manufacturers have deliberately marketed menthol cigarettes to Black people. Cigarette manufacturers advertised brands like “Kool” to African Americans as easier to inhale due to the cool sensation.
“This is a really big deal,” said Thomas, who is director of the lung cancer screening program at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
“It’s the first time the FDA is really hitting the tobacco industry with limitations on what they’re able to sell. Not selling menthol cigarettes is the first step in limiting their market and how they can sell dangerous cigarettes to high-risk populations. This is going to improve mortality,” said Thomas. She is also an assistant professor of Medicine, Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
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Thomas said the proposed menthol ban marks the first time that health authorities have sought a major restriction in cigarette sales or manufacturing in over a decade.
The last major change came over a decade ago when cigarette manufacturers in the U.S. were forced to change their packaging to remove labels indicating “light” and “ultralight” cigarettes. Even so, people who smoke can still recognize their color labels and continue to buy preferred cigarettes, Thomas said. Like menthol cigarettes, so-called “light” cigarettes cause just as much illness and death as regular cigarettes.
If successful in banning menthol cigarettes, federal health authorities may soon impose additional restrictions, Thomas said.
“All cigarettes are dangerous. They increase your chances of developing and dying from lung cancer among many other diseases,” she said.
Death rates related to smoking are exceptionally high, according to the CDC. Every year, one in five deaths in the U.S. is tied to cigarette smoking, with about 480,000 people dying of illnesses tied to smoking. Of those who die from cigarettes every year, about 47,000 are African American.
Thomas said it’s vital to reduce the stigma surrounding smoking and for people who smoke to know that there are resources available to help them quit, get screened for lung cancer and get treatment for other smoking-related illnesses.
Cigarette manufacturers have deliberately targeted certain populations, promoting addiction to nicotine even to children and teens.
In recent years, vaping also has surged in popularity with manufacturers targeting children and teens with flavored vaping products. FDA experts also are considering restrictions on vaping products, but for now, the efforts to halt sales of menthol cigarettes will not restrict sales on flavored e-cigarettes.
Some studies link menthol cigarettes to an increased risk of certain types of lung cancer. These cancers may be related to the ease of inhaling the smoke from menthol-flavored cigarettes. It’s possible that menthol also encouraged people to smoke more frequently.
Thomas said banning menthol cigarettes is a great first step. Since she sees the direct impact of cigarette smoking in causing lung cancer, she’d love to see health officials ban the sale of all cigarettes.