The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently took the bold step of announcing plans to ban the sale of menthol flavored tobacco. The agency unveiled its decision guided by the belief that prohibiting access will “help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products.” With flavored e-cigarettes being banned since February of last year, the FDA’s commitment to outlaw menthol flavored tobacco will only further reduce the number of smoking alternatives available to consumers.
While FDA’s attempts to get smokers to quit are admirable, banning menthol cigarettes only causes users to switch to equally harmful tobacco products at the very least. Worse yet, the ban would boost crime as smokers would buy menthol products from black market sources. Instead of banning menthol, the FDA should promote lifesaving alternatives such as e-cigarettes which are effective in helping smokers quit and much safer than tobacco products.
According to the FDA, around 18.6 million of America’s smokers use menthol cigarettes, or around 54% of the total smoking population. The proposed prohibition seeks to ultimately reduce the number of smokers who die each year from smoking, which stands at around 500,000.
Studies, however, have shown that menthol bans only force users to switch to non-menthol tobacco products instead of providing them an incentive to quit. A recent study, for example, reviewing the outcomes of a ban in Canada found that 60% of smokers simply switched to non-menthol tobacco products like traditional cigarettes, which are in no way healthier. Incentivizing a switch to traditional cigarettes by banning menthol would not improve consumer health, even though authorities might believe it would.
Prohibition would also not prevent people from obtaining menthol cigarettes. Data from jurisdictions where menthol products are banned have seen an uptick in the number of consumers purchasing them illegally through black market sources. Massachusetts, the first U.S. state to ban menthol cigarettes in 2020, saw black markets pop up after menthol bans took effect. Convenience store owners in Boston complained about people illegally selling menthols purchased in other states outside their stores to adults and teenagers. A ban on menthol products nationwide would only result in new illegal markets popping up and products falling into the hands of underage users.
If the FDA wants to efficiently address smoking, it should instead support the use of alternatives like e-cigarettes which are proven to be effective at helping smokers quit. A study from King’s College London found that people who used refillable e-cigarettes daily were, “over five times more likely to achieve abstinence from tobacco smoking for one month, compared to those using no quitting aids at all.”
Research also shows e-cigarettes to be more effective than other traditional smoking therapies. A summary published in the Cochrane Library Database of Systematic Reviews concluded that the use of e-cigarettes prevented 67% more smokers from returning to cigarettes than those using nicotine-replacement therapies such as patches or gum.
Vaping is much safer for smokers than smoking traditional cigarettes. An evidence review from Public Health England published in 2015 found that e-cigarettes are at least 95% less harmful than smoking traditional cigarettes.
These facts show e-cigarettes are an incredibly useful tool in improving health outcomes for smokers. A research report from Georgetown Medical Center shows that every smoker in the U.S. choosing to switch to e-cigarettes could save 6.6 million lives over the next decade. The FDA should listen to what the research says on vapes and act to remove restrictions on flavored e-cigarettes to give consumers the opportunity to improve their health.
While the motive to improve consumer health is commendable, a ban on menthol cigarettes would give a boost to black markets and drive former menthol users to use equally harmful products. Lifting restrictions on e-cigarettes instead would provide smokers with safe devices that have been proven to be able to save millions of American lives. The FDA’s policies should reflect what the research shows. The lives of American smokers depend on it.