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Food And Drug Administration Moves To Ban Menthol Cigarettes

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The FDA is moving ahead with a plan to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. Although smoking rates have dropped dramatically in the last few decades, smoking is still the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the U.S. The FDA's Center for Tobacco Products is leading the push for a ban. And its director, Mitch Zeller, is on the line with us this morning. Thank you for being here.

MITCH ZELLER: My pleasure, Rachel, good to be with you.

MARTIN: Why menthols and flavored cigars?

ZELLER: We have a huge health equity issue when it comes to combusted tobacco products in general and menthol and flavored cigars, specifically. All the progress that you mentioned at a population level, reducing consumption and prevalence of cigarettes, hasn't applied equally. Ninety percent of all Black Americans who smoke smoke menthol cigarettes. Only about 30% of white Americans who smoke smoke menthol. All the progress that we've made in reducing use of menthol cigarettes by white teens hasn't applied to Black and brown teens. So there's a huge health disparity issue, and it's vital that we step in to take these harmful flavors out of combusted tobacco products.

MARTIN: So you are specifically identifying racial equity as a reason behind these bans.

ZELLER: It's a broad set of health inequities that start with the disproportionate toll that menthol takes on Black Americans. But however you slice it, whether it's people who are less well-educated or people who live below the poverty line, we have disproportionate, adverse health impacts from the use of cigarettes and other combusted products on those populations.

MARTIN: It's interesting, though, because civil rights groups have already come out against this, some of them saying the ban could drive an illegal market for menthols in particular, which could make Black Americans the target of even more police scrutiny in a legal system that arrests and prosecutes Blacks far more than whites for the same crimes.

ZELLER: Well, obviously, there are some really important ongoing societal issues related to systemic racism in the role of policing. But, you know, let me make this clear. Were we to finalize this policy, FDA is in the business of making sure that these products don't get into the marketplace in the first place. So our focus would be on the manufacturers and the distributors and the wholesalers and the retailers. We don't have any authority to go after, nor would we go after, individual possession. That's not to minimize the concerns about policing, but nothing that we would take here would empower any local police authority to do anything to enforce a menthol ban.

MARTIN: Why not try to ban all cigarettes altogether?

ZELLER: That's a bigger, broader question for society and ultimately for Congress. In our statute, there's actually a provision that says we don't have the authority to ban entire categories of tobacco products. What we do have, it's a power called the product standard authority, and that's the power that we propose to use to take menthol and these other flavors out of cigars.

MARTIN: How likely is it that this ban is going to go through?

ZELLER: We feel very strongly that the science supports this action. In fact, there are many who think that we should have taken this action a long time ago. So I am confident in the evidence base. But it is a rulemaking process, and the rulemaking process can take time. When we made the announcement yesterday, we said that we intend to get these two proposed policies published within a year. And then beyond that, we will move as quickly as we can without making any promises as to ultimately how long it will take. But at the end of the day, I am very confident that the science base will support seeing these policies go into effect.

MARTIN: Mitch Zeller - he is the director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products - talking about the FDA's move to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. We appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

ZELLER: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.