After the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was given authority over tobacco products by The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Act, which was signed into law on June 22, 2009, the FDA stretched its muscles and banned several cigarette flavorings exactly three months later, on Sept. 22, 2009.
Not included on the list of banned cigarette flavorings, however, were menthol cigarettes—a fact that has spurred discussion within the public health arena, according to a white paper funded by a Department of Health and Human Services contract, authored by University of California, San Francisco, professor Stacey Anderson.
Menthol cigarettes are considered by many to be more addictive and easier to start with than nonmenthol cigarettes.
The debate over menthol flavored cigarettes is now being looked into by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products, with rumors of a potential ban of menthol cigarettes. Calls made to the FDA Center for Tobacco Products were not returned as of press deadline.
The Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee will release a report and recommendations on menthol flavored cigarettes next year, and the group can recommend regulations or a ban of the cigarettes. This issue has raised concerns over whether a ban would feed the cigarette black market and have a greater impact on specific racial groups.
Among the points being examined by the FDA are the affects of menthol cigarettes on public health, as well as marketing techniques targeting African-Americans, Hispanics, or other racial and ethnic minorities. The FDA is also examining whether advertisements of menthol cigarettes geared for young adults are encouraging children and youths to smoke.
The defining characteristic of menthol is a peppermint oil extract, which gives the cigarettes a cooling effect and flavor. Menthol flavoring is found in 90 percent of all tobacco products, whether “mentholated,” or “nonmentholated,” states the white paper.
Menthol cigarettes were marketed specifically to young people, women, African-Americans, and Asians, which “contributed to the popularity of menthol styles in these groups,” states the white paper. It adds that 86.6 percent of all African-American smokers use menthol cigarettes.
The percentage of African-American menthol cigarette users has sparked concern over the racial impact a ban could have on African-American communities.
“Disproportionately, it could affect the African-American community because we disproportionately tend to favor menthol flavored cigarettes,” said Niger Innis, spokesperson of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group.
Innis said that among his main concerns over a potential ban is that it could strengthen the cigarette black market in inner cities.
“My fear, my apprehension is that that with the African-American population that is disproportionately in the criminal justice system, you don’t want to give yet another vehicle for crimes to be committed,” Innis said.
There are two main forms of illegal cigarette trade: counterfeit cigarettes and black market cigarettes.
Counterfeit cigarettes are cheaply manufactured cigarettes made to resemble legitimate brands. Black-market cigarettes are bought in large quantities in states that have low cigarette taxes and sold at a huge profit in high-tax states.
“Can you imagine what would happen if menthol cigarettes were banned? You’re talking about potentially creating a black market in the inner city and giving another vehicle for black consumers to get involved in the criminal justice system, and that’s dangerous,” Innis said.
A similar issue was raised by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), an organization of African-American law enforcement officers. The organization is urging the FDA Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee to “properly study the potential ramifications of banning menthol,” said NOBLE Executive Director Jessie Lee in a press release.
The Black Market
Counterfeit cigarettes are a daunting problem in New York City, where the cigarette taxes are particularly high. The tax in NYC is 75 cents for every 10 cigarettes, and for containers of 20 or more cigarettes, the cost is 38 cents for every 5 cigarettes, according to NYC City Hall.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Sept. 16, announced the results of an undercover investigation into illegal cigarette sales at the Poospatuck Reservation on Long Island. Two cigarette dealers were caught on tape selling illegal cigarettes without paying state and city taxes.
“In 2009, sales of untaxed cigarettes on reservations accounted for one-third of all brand-name cigarette sales in New York,” said John Feinblatt, the mayor’s chief policy adviser in a press release.
“That adds up to nearly a billion dollars in lost tax revenue the state and city could have used during these tough times,” Feinblatt said.
A similar bust was made in Queens, NYC, where 26 people were caught working in a ring that had $4 million in untaxed, counterfeit cigarettes and designer merchandise. The arrests were announced by Queens County District Attorney Richard Brown on March 17.
“Cigarette bootlegging is a multimillion dollar business that rips off the public both by flooding the market place with inferior products—containing dangerously high levels of tar and nicotine—while at the same time fueling an underground economy that does not pay much-needed state and local sales taxes,” Brown said in a press release.
By Joshua Philipp