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The FDA announced Thursday it hopes to ban menthol in cigarettes and cigars, citing its particularly harmful impact on Black communities, to whom they were heavily marketed. William Brangham has more on the FDA's move and discusses it with Delmonte Jefferson, the executive director at The Center for Black Health & Equity — one of many groups that had been pressuring the FDA to take this step.
As we reported earlier, the FDA announced that it hopes to ban menthol in cigarettes and cigars, citing its particularly harmful impact on Black communities in America.
William Brangham has more on the FDA's move.
That's right, Judy.
For years, menthol cigarettes were marketed heavily to Black communities. And, today, it's estimated that 85 percent of Black smokers choose menthol brands, like Kool and Newport.
Menthol is an additive that can mask the harshness of tobacco smoke, and it's believed to make nicotine even more addictive.
Justifying their proposed ban today, FDA officials said this could help reduce the leading cause of preventable death in America.
One study showed that, from 1980 to 2018, menthol cigarette smoking was linked to 378,000 premature deaths, three million life years lost, and 10.1 million new smokers.
Joining me now is Delmonte Jefferson. He's the executive director at The Center for Black Health & Equity, one of many groups that had been pressuring the FDA to take this step.
Mr. Jefferson, great to have you on the "NewsHour."
I listened to your press briefing earlier today, where — you and several other groups that have been fighting this fight. And there were people on that call who were crying tears of joy for the announcement today.
For people who have not been following this so closely, why is today such a big deal?
Well, it's a big deal because this goes well beyond 2009, when the FDA didn't ban menthol.
This goes back to 1990, when tobacco industry tried to come into our communities with menthol products. And we have been fighting this fight since then. And so that's over 30 years.
And what is it specifically that you find so troubling about menthol cigarettes?
Well, first of all, it's very troubling how they targeted our communities, how the predatory marketing targeted our communities with their free cigarette sampling vans, with the sponsoring of our concerts and our events, paying off some of our elected officials and church officials to promote their cause.
That's what's troubling.
I mean, there's, I understand, to be a few issues with menthol in particular with regards to public health.
One, it does make nicotine — seems to make nicotine more addictive. But also by, as I mentioned, masking the harshness of the smoke, it seems like it makes it easier for people to start smoking.
Well, that's the primary reason. The tobacco industry knew this.
And menthol, as you may or may not know, is in every single tobacco product because it masks the harshness of the smoke. Now, it's not always a characterizing flavor, like it is in Kool and Newports, but it is in every single product just for that reason, to make it easier to get the poison down.
You mentioned this issue of timing. And we certainly saw the FDA act much quicker on other flavored vaping products and nicotine products.
You have been fighting this fight for decades. Does it bother you that it took so long for the FDA to take this step?
And that's another reason why you saw tears of joy today, because it has taken so long, because it was evident, quite evident, that menthol was lumped just in with the other evidences of systemic racism and health injustices that African-American communities have suffered so long.
And so to have a victory of this magnitude, where the FDA comes out and says, yes, black lives do matter, yes, we do care about health for black communities, that was very important for us and very moving for us.
As you well know, nicotine is a very addictive drug.
Isn't there a concern that, if menthol cigarettes are banned, that smokers who are smoking menthols today will simply switch to other non-menthol cigarettes tomorrow?
Well, what we have seen in other countries, we have seen other countries that have banned menthol, we have seen folks just say, well, wait a minute, we don't have menthol, I'm going to quit smoking for good.
And this is actually what African-Americans have also said. If menthol were off the market, they wouldn't smoke tobacco products. And so now that menthol is banned, and now that we can get it off the market, it's time for us to really help to encourage that cessation effort at a national level.
I should say, for all of the celebration today, there isn't total unanimity in the black community about this.
Some have argued that, if you ban this, they will — a black market will grow and that, if there's an illegal product, that that might just further interactions between the black community and law enforcement, when that's the last thing that we need.
What do you make of that argument?
Well, first of all, we have heard that argument before. We heard that argument back in 2009, when we were asking then for them to include menthol.
And the argument itself generated from the tobacco industry. Now, the tobacco industry paid and they got spokespersons within the black community to make that argument. But this is an argument that comes from the industry itself.
And, to be honest, there's absolutely no data to support it. Even since 2009, when they banned strawberry and grape and the other flavors, there's no evidence that we have had encounters with law enforcement because those flavors were banned and/or being smoked and utilized.
Now — and to the other point, however, and there was another point you made just about the criminalization, that too is strong propaganda, because they like to use and throw up Eric Garner, and they like to throw up Sandra Bland, and they like to throw up George Floyd and say, well, look, these were encounters because of tobacco, because of mentholated tobacco.
However, for that same argument, I would throw out Anthony Brown. I would throw out Isaiah Brown and Dante Smith, these same individuals, other individuals that were killed just recently, with no encounter or no reason for cigarettes whatsoever. That wasn't the reason that they were approached by law enforcement.
In fact, it's probably more dangerous to have a cell phone in your hand and up to your ear than it is to have a cigarette in your mouth.
All right, well, we know that there's a long rulemaking process and certainly some industry litigation ahead before this finally takes effect.
But, until then, Delmonte Jefferson at the Center for Black Health & Equity, thank you very much for being here.
Thank you for having me.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
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