NC’s Stein joins push by Democratic attorneys general for ban on Menthol cigarettes

Attorney General Josh Stein speaks at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. Photo via N.C. Dept. of Public Safety

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s Attorney General Josh Stein has joined with 22 other Democratic attorneys general asking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban Menthol cigarettes.

In a press release on Jan. 22, Stein announced such a ban “would benefit public health, decrease youth smoking, and help mitigate harm to communities of color.”

“Menthol cigarettes are designed to be easier to smoke,” said Stein in the release. “That means they make it easier to get hooked. What’s more, they’re marketed in ways that disproportionately harm young people and people of color. I urge the FDA to ban menthol cigarettes and help us prevent another generation of North Carolinians from become addicted to nicotine and suffering the consequences in years to come.”

In his press release, Stein cites 2019 data on the targeting of black smokers That data showed an “estimated 46.7% of middle and high school-aged smokers used menthol cigarettes, but menthol cigarette smoking is even higher among African American youth. Data also shows that 89% of all African American smokers smoke menthol cigarettes compared to 26% of white smokers.”

The letter says that Menthol cigarettes represent a major barrier to smoking cessation and the reduction of smoking-related health conditions.

Including the signature pages, the letter is 15 pages long and is signed by 23 Democratic attorneys general. In addition to North Carolina, other state attorneys general signing the letter include Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin and Vermont. Additional signers include the U.S. territories of the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico.

The letter to the FDA states that “overwhelming scientific evidence not only supports the prohibition of menthol cigarettes to protect public health and save thousands of lives, but also indicates that a prohibition should be implemented urgently.”

 One study cited is a report from 2011 by Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee (“TPSAC”). That study concluded that menthol cigarettes increased the number of youths who start smoking, those who become addicted and that the use of menthol cigarettes by youth was “even higher among minority youth, in particular African-Americans.”  

The attempt to ban Menthol cigarettes is not a new idea, but one that dates to 2009 during the Barack Obama administration. That year, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act was passed by Congress and was signed by the former president. The law banned flavor use in cigarettes, but lack of research at the time kept menthol off the ban list. Two years later in 2011, the FDA’s Advisory Committee reported taking menthol cigarettes off the market would “benefit public health in the United States.”

Stein’s action may see significant pushback considering that North Carolina is a leader in tobacco-growing nationally. The state is also the base of operations for two major tobacco companies, RJ Reynolds and ITG Brands.

ITG has not yet responded for a request for comment, but RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company released the following statement to North State Journal:

“We share the Attorneys General and FDA concerns over youth smoking rates, and while youth smoking is currently at historic lows per latest NYTS data, we plan to continue working with those looking to find solutions to address youth usage of any nicotine products, and encourage FDA’s enforcement actions against illegally marketed tobacco products.

However, bans and prohibitions are not an effective strategy to address these concerns, because the consequence of prohibitions on adult choices to use tobacco products is a potential illicit market.

Moreover, the scientific evidence does not support regulating menthol cigarettes any differently than non-menthol cigarettes. As was true when the FDA first examined menthol in 2013, and as the published literature continues to demonstrate, there is no scientific basis to regulate menthol and non-menthol cigarettes differently. The scientific evidence does not show a difference in health risks between a menthol and a non-menthol cigarette. And the scientific evidence does not support the argument that menthol cigarettes adversely affect initiation, dependence or cessation.

Regulating menthol cigarettes differently than non-menthol cigarettes will likely result in numerous troubling unintended consequences such as a significant growth in contraband menthol cigarettes sold through an illegal, underground market that is already well known and widespread and that undermines efforts to reduce youth smoking.”