Is Banning Menthol Cigarettes a Social Justice Issue?


Cigarette smoking remains the leading cause of preventable disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even though smoking has gone down in the last 15 years. A new study shows that menthol cigarettes are primarily keeping the habit alive, and negatively impacting minoritized groups most.

Professor Renee Goodwin of the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy co-authored a study in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research that describes banning menthol cigarettes as a social justice issue.

Young people and Black smokers are not the only vulnerable populations that warrant attention with respect to menthol smoking,” the authors wrote.

“Indeed, our analyses highlight that preference for menthol among cigarette smokers is also disproportionately high among lesbian, gay, and bisexual smokers, smokers with mental health problems, socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, and pregnant women.”

In 2009, Congress passed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (TCA), banning flavors in cigarettes. However, menthol was purposely exempt from the ban, the authors note. Therefore, the flavor, popular among young smokers and Black smokers, remained.

Naturally, health experts were concerned. Several wrote in a letter to The New York Times: “But, by failing to ban menthol, the bill caves to the financial interests of tobacco companies and discriminates against African Americans—the segment of our population at greatest risk for the killing and crippling smoking-related diseases. It sends a message that African American youngsters are valued less than white youngsters.”

The authors looked at data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that young Black and brown people prefer the menthol flavor most. Additionally, of the over 630,000 deaths that could have been prevented by banning the flavored cigarette, one in three of them would have been a Black person.