Many issues have taken a back seat to the pandemic and other national news. However, in the world of pulmonary disease and national health, the recent ruling by the FDA to ban menthol in tobacco products is a major step forward in helping to reduce the incidence of those diseases related to tobacco use. It is also a big step forward to abolishing the institutional racism of the tobacco industry.
Menthol in cigarettes and cigars masks the unpleasant smell of tobacco and numbs the airways to the irritation caused by tobacco smoke. Smoking in the U.S. has declined from 45% of adults in the 1950’s to only 14% today. Not all communities have seen this decline, namely communities of color, low income populations, and LGBTQ individuals. Eighteen million people smoke menthol cigarettes, with 85% of black smokers using menthol cigarettes resulting in the loss of 45,000 black lives every year. Half of adolescents who try tobacco choose menthol-flavored products. Menthol also amplifies the effects of nicotine making habituation more likely and easily acquired. Menthol cigarettes are responsible for 10,000 deaths per year and more than 265,000 new smokers per year since 1980.
Pulmonary and critical care physicians feel this ruling will save lives, including those of thousands of black Americans. Banning menthol will also reduce tobacco addiction, diminish youth experimentation and youth initiation of tobacco use, and increase the ability of tobacco smokers to successfully quit. We need to continue to try and help our patients quit smoking.