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FDA proposes menthol cigarette ban

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Food and Drug Administration is one step closer to ending the sale of menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars in the U.S. Today the agency proposed banning the sale of all menthol tobacco products, and the Biden administration is signaling its strong support. Public health advocates say this will save lives, especially among Black Americans. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us. Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey. So I don't smoke, but I have tried cigarettes, and I've tried menthol cigarettes. And the distinguishing thing is that they taste like mint. They taste good...

AUBREY: Right.

KELLY: ...And not as harsh as tobacco. Is that what makes them so popular?

AUBREY: That is definitely part of it. I mean, it's just easier to start smoking if cigarettes have a soothing, even pleasant taste. And it's harder to quit, too.

KELLY: Yeah.

AUBREY: Nearly 19 million people in the U.S. smoke menthol cigarettes, and anti-tobacco advocates say a ban would be the single most important action taken by the FDA in recent years to curb smoking and all the disease caused by it. Here's Erika Sward of the American Lung Association.

ERIKA SWARD: Simply put, it's a big deal. It will save lives, especially in Black and brown communities in the United States, and it will reduce youth smoking. It will also lead to fewer people being diagnosed or getting lung disease, cancers and heart disease.

AUBREY: And advocates have really been pushing for action on menthol for years now.

KELLY: And to her point, Allison, that this will really save lives, especially in Black and brown communities, do we know why a disproportionately high number of Black Americans seem to use menthol products?

AUBREY: Well, marketing and advertising practices really help explain this. I spoke to Portia Reddick White of the NAACP. She says the tobacco industry has targeted marketing in Black communities going back to the 1960s. Her group wrote a letter last week urging the FDA to ban menthol cigarettes.

PORTIA REDDICK WHITE: The tobacco industry - over the years, they have been ruthless with their targeting. They actually have targeted in many ways - advertising, discounting prices that appeal or sponsoring events or actually giving money to Black educational institutions and civic leaders.

AUBREY: Now, the NAACP says it stopped accepting funds from the tobacco industry over two decades ago. But a lot of these practices have continued, and the group says the consistency of the tobacco industry efforts has harmed Black Americans.

KELLY: Is the tobacco industry likely to challenge this proposed ban?

AUBREY: Well, tobacco companies definitely oppose the proposal, and it would not be a surprise at all if they challenge the rules in court. A spokesperson for the tobacco company Altria - that's a spinoff of Philip Morris - said in a statement that banning sales of menthol products would push them into unregulated criminal markets that she said don't allow for any regulations. But, you know, public health and anti-tobacco advocates pushed back. They say the evidence to show the harm of menthol cigarettes is pretty overwhelming. Here's Dennis Henigan of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

DENNIS HENIGAN: I believe that the science is so strong and the life-saving potential is so well-established that these rules will be finalized and they will survive court challenge.

AUBREY: The FDA will open the rules up for public comment for 60 days, Mary Louise. But advocates say it could be several years before a menthol ban is put in place given opposition from the industry and the regulatory process.

KELLY: Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's Allison Aubrey reporting.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DELI'S "5:32PM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.