Rush to curtail youth vaping leaves glut of menthol cigarettes

Finding from African-American Tobacco Control

Anna B. Ibarra California Healthline | 11/14/2019, midnight
As states and communities rush to ban the sale..

As states and communities rush to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products linked to vaping, Carol McGruder races from town to town, urging officials to include what she calls “the mother lode of all flavors”: menthol.

McGruder, co-chair of the African-American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, has tried for years to warn lawmakers that menthol attracts new smokers, especially African-Americans. Now that more officials are willing to listen, she wants them to prohibit menthol cigarettes and cigarillos, not just e-cigarette flavors, to reduce smoking among Blacks.

McGruder and other tobacco control researchers are using the youth vaping epidemic—and the vaping-related illnesses sweeping the country—as an opportunity to take on menthol cigarettes, even though they are not related to the illnesses.

“We started to see that vaping is something that we could leverage in order to deal with this whole menthol issue,” said Valerie Yerger, an associate professor of health policy at the University of California-San Francisco.

Menthol is a substance found in mint plants that creates a cooling sensation and masks tobacco flavor in both e-cigarettes and cigarettes. Those properties make menthol more appealing to first-time smokers and vapers, even as they pose the same health threats as non-menthol products and may be harder to quit.

Nearly nine out of 10 African-American smokers prefer mentholated cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But even as tobacco control activists see opportunity, some African-Americans—including smokers—fear discrimination. They predict that banning menthol will lead to a surge in illicit sales of cigarettes and result in additional policing in communities that already face tension with law enforcement.

Joseph Paul, director of political and civic affairs at City of Refuge Los Angeles, a church with about 17,000 members in Gardena, spoke at a board of supervisors meeting in September against a proposed flavor ban in Los Angeles County that was adopted later that month.

“Menthol cigarettes are very popular in the Black community,” he said. “My people smoke menthol cigarettes.”

The Los Angeles County ban prohibits sales but not possession of flavored e-cigarette products, menthol cigarettes and chewing tobacco in the unincorporated area of the county, inhabited by about 1 million people. Shops have until April to clear their shelves of flavored tobacco products.

Of the more than 200 communities in the country that restrict or ban the sale of flavored tobacco, fewer than 60 include restrictions on menthol cigarettes, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

In California, close to 50 communities restrict or ban flavored tobacco products; of those, more than 30 include restrictions on menthol cigarettes. Notably, San Francisco banned menthol cigarettes along with all flavored tobacco products in 2018, before banning all vapes and e-cigarettes earlier this year.

At the national level, the Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of flavors in combustible cigarettes in 2009, but exempted menthol.

Menthol, which was first added to cigarettes in the 1920s, is as old-school as it gets when it comes to flavored tobacco, yet it hasn’t prompted action in the way that vape flavors such as cotton candy and strawberry-melon have.

Big Tobacco aggressively pushed menthol cigarettes on Black youth in the 1950s and 60s, and now some people consider Kools and Newports part of “Black culture,” McGruder said.

McGruder and others point out that the tobacco industry has supported and funded civil rights groups and causes, forming relationships with prominent Black leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is opposing a proposed New York City law banning the sale of flavored cigarettes.

McGruder said it’s difficult for the African-American community to contradict respected male civil rights and religious leaders.