The Food and Drug Administration promised Thursday to issue new rules within a year that would ban menthol in cigarettes and small cigars – a longtime goal of civil rights and anti-tobacco groups, who say aggressive marketing of the products has disproportionately harmed Black communities.

It could be years before any ban takes effect. The move would also ban flavorings in cigars, which are popular with young people. But at a briefing Thursday, top FDA officials promised to begin the process by proposing regulations in the next 12 months. That would start a lengthy process of comment and response before the products could be banned.

There are “very important considerations, starting with legal considerations, about getting this right as we move forward in the rulemaking,” said Mitch Zeller, director of FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. “It’s really impossible to predict how long it would take to complete the rulemaking.”

The agency faced a court deadline Thursday to respond to a 2o13 citizen petition that seeks a ban on menthol in cigarettes. A lawsuit was filed last year in federal district court in Northern California by health groups to force the FDA to respond to the petition.

Zeller and acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock said the menthol ban would reduce health disparities between white and Black smokers. About 85 percent of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, three times the rate of white smokers, and their rate of quitting smoking has not declined as quickly as it has for white people. As a result, Black smokers suffer disproportionate rates of disease and death.

Similarly, the officials described the effort to remove menthol and flavorings from small cigars as a way to prevent young people from starting the smoking habit and helping them quit. The small cigars are increasingly popular with young smokers; more high school smokers now use small cigars than cigarettes, Zeller said.

Longtime antismoking advocates cheered Thursday’s announcement. Nancy Brown, chief executive of the American Heart Association, called the move “historic.”

“A prohibition on menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars would mark a historic turning point in the decades-long battle against tobacco use and the epidemic of tobacco-related disease,” she said in a statement.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, however, said “banning menthol cigarettes will be no more successful than any other drug prohibition, spurring a gigantic illicit market and turning menthol smokers – primarily Black Americans – into criminals.”

But Woodcock and Zeller took pains to emphasize that the FDA will not be enforcing a menthol ban by targeting consumers. Once a ban is put into effect, the government’s role would be to regulate the manufacture, sale, distribution and importation of cigarettes – to keep them away from consumers in the first place, Zeller said.


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