Director of Public Health Law Center, other public health leaders urge FDA to act on menthol cigarettes

Leading national public health advocates, including Doug Blanke, director of the Public Health Law Center at William Mitchell, filed a Citizen Petition urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prohibit the use of menthol as a characterizing flavoring in cigarettes.

The historic menthol petition was delivered to FDA offices today (Friday, April 12) by the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium on behalf of a long list of co-signing organizations focused on public health in general, and organizations focused on racial and ethnic health outcome disparities in particular. In addition to his work at Mitchell, Blanke is the executive director of the consortium.

In 2009, congress passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.  Among other things, the law prohibited the use of fruity and candy-like “characterizing flavors” in cigarettes and cigarette smoke.  The flavor prohibition was especially intended to prevent young people from being lured to try—and to become addicted to—a lethal product.

While menthol was the one flavor that was exempted from this 2009 prohibition, Congress did give the FDA the authority to prohibit menthol if “appropriate for public health.” The law specifically made the issue of menthol in cigarettes a priority for FDA consideration.  The FDA has not yet prohibited menthol.

Following the filing of this Citizen Petition, the FDA is now required to begin a formal consideration process that could include the gathering of public testimony and will result in a formal FDA ruling on the matter.

Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States, and the petition stresses that smokers who are young and those who are members of racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately impacted by the availability of menthol cigarettes.   Nearly half (48 percent) of 12- to 17-year old smokers report menthol cigarette use compared to 32 percent of adults age 26 or older.  While 24 percent of white smokers smoke menthol cigarettes, they are used at much higher rates by racial and ethnic minorities, such as African Americans (83 percent), Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders (53 percent), Hispanics or Latinos (32 percent) and Asian Americans (31 percent).

“It’s shameful for our government to ban all cigarette flavorings except the one that is deadliest for communities of color and teens,” said Dr. Phil Gardiner of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council.  “This is not only a public health issue, but also a social justice issue.”

A study published in the American Journal of Public health found that 68 percent of African Americans support prohibiting menthol flavoring in cigarettes.  A strong majority of white Americans (56 percent) also support a prohibition on menthol flavoring.

Menthol is a minty flavor that makes cigarettes attractive to many consumers.  The flavor itself is popular with many smokers, and it also produces a cooling sensation that many smokers enjoy, particularly those new to smoking. Tobacco industry marketing of menthol cigarettes has particularly been aimed at African Americans.  Menthol cigarettes constitute about one-third of the American cigarette market.

“Menthol in cigarettes causes more people to start smoking and makes it harder for them to quit – especially children and African Americans,” said Doug Blanke, director of the Public Health Law Center at Mitchell and executive director of the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium. “There can be no justification for failing to take menthol cigarettes off the market.”

One model estimates that if menthol was prohibited as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes, between 2010 and 2020 over 2.2 million would not start smoking.  By 2050, the number of people who would not smoke would be 9 million.

“The FDA has a chance to save the lives of millions of Americans,” said Jeannette Noltenius of the National Latino Alliance for Health Equity.  “Every day we delay action on this issue, more Americans are suffering and dying.  The time to act is now.”

The following organizations were parties to the petition:  African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council; American Academy of Pediatrics; American Association for Cancer Research; American Cancer Society – Cancer Action Network; American Heart Association; American Legacy Foundation; American Lung Association; American Public Health Association; Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights; Asian Pacific Partners for Empowerment, Advocacy and Leadership (APPEAL); Association for the Treatment of Tobacco Use and Dependence; Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids; Corporate Accountability International; NAATPN, Inc.; National Association of City and County Health Officials; National Latino Alliance for Health Equity; Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco; Summit Health Institute for Research and Education, Inc. and Tobacco Control Legal Consortium.

Read a copy of the 38-page petition

The Tobacco Control Legal Consortium is the legal network supporting the nation’s efforts to address the leading avoidable cause of disease — tobacco use. Based at the William Mitchell College of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the Consortium provides legal and policy assistance to community leaders working to enact, implement, and defend laws that reduce the toll of tobacco.