FDA proposal to ban menthol cigarettes is met with praise and criticism

The FDA is forging ahead with a proposal to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes after more than a decade of deliberation. If finalized this summer, the move is expected to reduce smoking levels, especially among Black smokers, but the decision has been met with both praise and criticism. Carol McGruder, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, joins Stephanie Sy to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After considering doing so off and on for more than a decade, the FDA is forging ahead with a proposal to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes.

    If finalized this summer, the move is expected to reduce smoking levels, but the decision has been met with both praise and criticism.

    Stephanie Sy has our look.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, menthol accounts for more than a third of all cigarettes sold in the U.S. And the cooling, minty flavor is the most popular among certain smokers.

    Nearly 85 percent of Black smokers use menthol, compared to 30 percent of white smokers. More than half of all kids who smoke use menthol cigarettes. The FDA said the ban could prevent up to 650,000 smoking deaths over 40 years.

    Carol McGruder is the co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, an advocacy group.

    Carol McGruder, thank you so much for joining us.

    Banning menthol cigarettes, really, it's been discussed for years under different presidential administrations. How big of a deal is it that this FDA under Biden is finally making this move?

  • Carol McGruder, Co-Chair, African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council:

    This is a monumental day in public health, the day of the century, I would say, over the last 100 years. This ruling is that important.

    We want to make sure people know it's not done. This is the beginning of that process. And so we still need to very much participate in it. And we need to understand that the tobacco industry could also have lawsuits to block it.

    So, this is the beginning of the end, not the end. But it's a monumental day. And the FDA is finally doing what they were mandated to do in 2009, when the Tobacco Control Act was passed, and that was to do something about menthol. So it's taken a lot of push, a lawsuit on our part, with our co-plaintiffs, Action on Smoking and Health, and the American Medical Association, and the National Medical Association, to get them to move.

    And they finally have. And we are very grateful.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The FDA statement out today explained the effects of menthol cigarettes.

    And one of the facts that I think a lot of people may not know is that the flavor actually enhances the addictive effects of nicotine. We also know they are the most preferred cigarettes among Black smokers, which your group specifically focuses on, Carol.

    Talk about some of the ways in which tobacco companies over the years have pushed these cigarettes on Black communities.

  • Carol McGruder:

    Well, through — through the tobacco industry's own documents that were released as a part of litigation over all these years, there have been some research papers that have come out.

    One is called Institutional Racism. The other one is Smoking With the Enemy. And it documents the tobacco industries, from their own documents, how they have preyed upon African Americans, how they had special — quote, unquote — "urban programs" for Black people. They distributed free cigarettes in our communities across this country to children as young as 9 years old.

    One of those children was Dave Chappelle. When he was 14 years old, he was given free cigarettes in Washington, D.C., in the Metro station. And he talks about in some of his interviews how he went home, and he decided he was going to learn how to smoke.

    And so that seeding of these deadly, addictive products in our communities has been going on for decades. And while we have been very busy fighting for civil rights and all of the other things that we — that have happened with Black people in this country, the tobacco industry has been there in the background addicting us each generation after generation.

    In the last 20 years, there have been a million Black people who have died from tobacco-induced diseases. My mother died from breast cancer. We do all kinds of research on what causes breast cancer. We know what caused these million deaths. What caused these million deaths was the tobacco industry.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And yet, Carol, there are critics of the ban. They worry it will have unintended consequences specifically on the Black community.

    Family members of Eric Garner, George Floyd and Trayvon Martin, as you know, all victims of excessive police force, have signed a joint letter to the Biden administration, which says: "Our fear is that banning the manufacture and sale of menthol cigarettes will not stop their production or purchase, but will instead open the floodgates for smuggling. While we have been told Black smokers will not be criminalized for possessing menthol cigarettes, that does not match our experience with other cigarette policies."

    Carol, what's your response to those concerns?

  • Carol McGruder:

    My response to those concerns are that we have a problem in our country with racism and with the policing of Black bodies. And that is a fact, and that the — for the tobacco industry, I know that Reverend Al Sharpton and his group, they actually receive money from Reynolds American, which is Newport cigarettes, and that he has been one of the people traveling around the country with this dialogue.

    And so — and I respect Reverend Al. He's done tremendous work in our community. But, on this issue, it's really the tobacco industry that is behind it. So, that's the group that has killed a million Black people in these past 20 years. There are other national organizations that are in full support of taking these products off the market.

    No one loves a Black smoke or Black people more than the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. That is why we exist ,is to protect our people from this predation.

    So, this is not the end, to pass legislation. It's the beginning. And we are all on board. Public health is on board. This is not about criminalizing Black smokers. This is about helping Black smokers and stopping another generation of Black children from being addicted to these products.

    Our neighborhoods do not have to be this way. And that's what we're saying. It's a new day. We are grateful to get to this day.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    That is the next step.

    Carol McGruder with the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

  • Carol McGruder:

    Thank you so much.

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