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FDA Moves To Ban Menthol Cigarettes


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced today it plans to ban menthol cigarettes and all flavored cigars within the next year. Tobacco companies have long targeted African Americans with advertising for these products, and the FDA says that 85% of Black smokers use menthols. The decision comes after years of efforts by groups like the NAACP and the National Medical Association. That's a group of African American physicians. Dr. Doris Browne led efforts to ban menthol products when she was president of the NMA. Welcome to the program.

DORIS BROWNE: Thank you.

CORNISH: Now, as we said, you're a medical oncologist, actually. Can you talk about how and why menthols pose a specific health risk?

BROWNE: Well, of course, menthol cigarettes provides an individual with the addiction of really wanting more, and it's hard to quit and because smoking in general has an impact upon an individual's health - not just chronic obstructive pulmonary disease but cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure. And so because those are the diseases that disproportionately impact the African American population, you add the smoking, whether it is secondhand smoke or smoking, then complicates that and then has a greater impact upon the African American population.

CORNISH: I want to jump in here. Groups have been pushing for this ban for years. Why do you think the FDA is now stepping in?

BROWNE: Well, over the past several years, they have been pressured to get rid of menthol in cigarettes and because the scientific evidence is very clear. And even the HHS secretary is in support of banning menthol cigarettes. And in 2009, there was a ban on other flavored products in cigarettes, and so menthol was left as the only flavored substance. And so over the past years, even in 2013, the FDA reported in one of its reports the devastating impact of - on menthol. But it was, you know, a lot of opposition as well as support for banning it. And finally, we are looking at the consequences of that upon individuals' health.

And should I say that because we're in the COVID pandemic, it's more urgent to eliminate those menthol cigarettes now than it was before because of that increased risk for severe illness from COVID. And of course, it certainly disproportionately impacts the African American population and other people of color. When you add that smoking and that addiction on top of it, it's - the consequences are very devastating.

CORNISH: In the last minute that we have, the ACLU has come out against this ban, saying it might create an underground market. What's your response to that?

BROWNE: Yes, I've heard that it may be an underground market. But I think with education and support for those individuals that are addicted to the menthol cigarette smoking, in trying to get them to quit - and we know that there's been a major campaign from the CDC and other agencies about tobacco use. And so getting them to stop is going to be critical. And, yes, we have to watch out. I've heard individuals indicate that perhaps some of the African Americans may start to want to sell cigarettes singly, and that might put them at greater risk for police brutality of illegally selling those cigarettes. And I don't think the menthol is being banned from use of those cigarettes, but cigarettes are not banned, which they should be.

CORNISH: That's Dr. Doris Browne, former president of the National Medical Association. Thank you for your time.

BROWNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
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