US vows again to ban menthol flavor in cigarettes, cigars

FILE - This May 17, 2018 file photo shows packs of menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products at a store in San Francisco. U.S. health regulators will announce a new effort Thursday, April 29, 2021, to ban menthol cigarettes, according to an Biden administration official. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
FILE - This May 17, 2018 file photo shows packs of menthol cigarettes and other tobacco products at a store in San Francisco. U.S. health regulators will announce a new effort Thursday, April 29, 2021, to ban menthol cigarettes, according to an Biden administration official. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File) (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – U.S. health regulators pledged again Thursday to try to ban menthol cigarettes, this time under pressure from African American groups to remove the mint flavor popular among Black smokers.

The Food and Drug Administration has attempted several times to get rid of menthol but faced pushback from Big Tobacco, members of Congress and competing political interests in both the Obama and Trump administrations. Any menthol ban will take years to implement and will likely face legal challenges from tobacco companies.

Thursday’s announcement is the result of a lawsuit filed by anti-smoking and medical groups last summer to force the FDA to finally make a decision on menthol, alleging that regulators had “unreasonably delayed” responding to a 2013 petition seeking to ban the flavor.

The deadline for the agency’s response was Thursday. The FDA said it aims to propose regulations banning the flavor in the coming year and declined to speculate on when the rule would be finalized.

The action would also ban menthol and fruity flavors from low-cost, small cigars, which are increasingly popular with young people, especially Black teens.

“We will save save hundreds of thousands of lives and prevent future generations from becoming addicted smokers,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, the FDA's acting commissioner.

She cited research estimates that banning menthol would prevent 630,000 tobacco-related deaths over 40 years, more than a third of them among African Americans.

Menthol is the only cigarette flavor that was not banned under the 2009 law that gave the FDA authority over tobacco products, an exemption negotiated by industry lobbyists. The act did, though, instruct the agency to continue to weigh banning menthol.