Last week, the Trump administration announced a surprising plan to ban flavored e-cigarettes, following an outbreak of hundreds of cases of unknown lung disease and at least six deaths linked to vaping. The ban would be a major win for public health. The federal ban even goes further than Gov. Cuomo’s emergency e-cigarette ban because it includes menthol flavored e-cigarettes. The presence of menthols in the federal ban may have an unintended, even more impactful effect — accelerating the momentum toward a ban on traditional menthol cigarettes in New York City.
Including menthol e-cigarettes in the proposed flavor ban categorizes menthols as a flavor rather than an additive — which runs counter to the characterization Big Tobacco has been pushing for years. Menthol products should be regulated the same way as all other flavored products. As a long-time leader on tobacco-use prevention, New York City must set an example for others to follow by banning the sale of menthol cigarettes.
Over the last three decades, New York City has curbed smoking dramatically thanks to the 1988 Smoke Free Air Act, the 2003 ban on smoking in restaurants and most bars, and steep taxes that make buying cigarettes more expensive here than anywhere else in the U.S., among other initiatives. Cities and states across the country have followed our lead, contributing to a nearly 7% decline in the smoking rate from 2005 to 2017.
Next on the agenda is tackling menthol-flavored nicotine products — which have been left untouched by regulators for decades.
The dangers of menthol cigarettes have long been documented. Many believe menthols to be less harmful because they create a cooling sensation that masks the harsh burn of traditional cigarettes. But research shows these products are more addictive because they are easier to smoke, causing users to take longer, deeper drags and increasing the amount of nicotine inhaled.
Despite the dangers, menthols have not been subject to the same stringent regulation as other tobacco products. For example, 2009 bans on the sale of flavored tobacco products in New York City and at the federal level did not include menthol flavors, thanks to Big Tobacco’s political influence. This directly affects the health of black smokers, who are 11 times more likely to use menthols than white smokers.
New York City Council is already considering legislation proposing to ban the sale of menthol cigarettes. The bill reportedly has majority support from 29 of 51 council members, enough to pass, but Big Tobacco is fighting to stop it so they can continue making billions by poisoning our children and black communities. The tobacco industry has even infiltrated black organizations by giving them large sums of money with the intention of drumming up opposition to menthol bans.
It’s time to prioritize health over industry and change how we classify menthols. According to the Department of Health, a potential 100,000 New Yorkers may attempt to quit smoking immediately after a ban on menthol cigarette sales takes effect. This matters beyond just our city. If we ban menthol flavors in New York City, others may follow, encouraging hundreds of thousands more smokers across the country to quit.
New York City can reduce smoking rates among vulnerable groups and prevent unnecessary illnesses and deaths locally and nationwide. This is a chance for our progressive leaders to take charge on one of our nation’s major public health issues once again. The stakes are high, both for New Yorkers and the entire country. It is time to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes.
David is president and CEO of Public Health Solutions.