(Adds more background on menthol cigarette market)
WASHINGTON, April 28 (Reuters) - The Biden administration this week is expected to propose a ban on menthol cigarettes, a move backed by civil rights groups that say Black Americans are hurt by the industry’s aggressive marketing of the product, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has scheduled a briefing on Thursday with lawmakers, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters. The agency faces a Thursday court deadline to respond to a 2013 citizen’s petition seeking a ban on menthol cigarettes.
Any proposed menthol ban by the administration could take years to go into effect, and would likely face legal challenges from the tobacco industry. Anti-smoking groups for decades have sounded the alarm on menthol in cigarettes, arguing they contribute to disproportionate health burdens on Black communities and play a role in luring young people into smoking.
The FDA declined to comment on the report from Post, which cited unidentified administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to a Bernstein research estimate, British American Tobacco Plc generates 55% of its cigarette volumes in the United States from menthols, led by its Newport brand, compared with 30% for Imperial Brands Plc and 17% for Altria Group Inc, the research said.
Altria and BAT did not respond to requests for comment.
Imperial Brands said in a statement “there is no conclusive science to support a ban on menthol,” adding that the company expects most menthol smokers would switch to other cigarettes. “We would not therefore anticipate any significant impact on our U.S. business.”
Although smoking has been on the decline in the United States for decades, one study last year in JAMA Network Open found that 91% of the decline in cigarette consumption between 2009 and 2018 was attributed to traditional, non-menthol cigarettes.
As a result, menthol cigarettes now make up 37% of the overall market share for cigarettes in the United States, an all-time high, according to a U.S. Federal Trade Commission report from earlier this year.
Nearly 85% of Black smokers use menthol cigarettes, compared with 29% of white smokers, according to a study last year drawing on federal survey data.
“Smoking rates are going down, but people’s use of menthol is not,” said Phillip Gardiner, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, one of the groups that sued the FDA in pushing for the menthol ban. “Who’s being left in the market are menthol smokers. They’ve been predatorily marketing these products to the African American community.”
Tobacco industry documents unearthed as part of a settlement agreement with state attorneys general in the 1990s showed tobacco industry executives discussing plans to target young Black smokers with menthol products. Research in California has also found a higher proportion of menthol advertisements in stores located in Black and low-income neighborhoods.
“If you are an African American and have always been around other African Americans who smoke, you are going to smoke menthols,” said Charles Debnam, a former smoker in the Washington, D.C. area who works with anti-smoking group DC Tobacco Free Coalition. “That is the flavor of choice.”
After smoking menthol cigarettes for more than 20 years, Debnam now helps many “die-hard menthol smokers” stop. “If there was no menthol around, they probably would look at ways to quit.” (Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Carl O’Donnell, Ankur Banerjee and Aishwarya Venugopal, Chris Kirkham and David Shepardson; Editing by Tim Ahmann, Bill Berkrot, Lisa Shumaker and Marguerita Choy)