The Food and Drug Administration has proposed to ban menthol-flavored cigarettes, but the Biden administration has not yet acted. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
4 min

The Biden administration’s looming decision on whether to ban menthol cigarettes should not be difficult.

One option is to carry out the ban promptly, as public health experts recommend, preventing tens of thousands of premature deaths each year; most of the lives saved would be those of Black Americans, who, if they smoke, disproportionately favor menthols. The alternative is more delay, the justification for which would be mainly political. As The Post has reported, some in the White House argue against banning a product popular with Black smokers for fear of losing votes in a key Democratic constituency.

Saving lives is both a more likely outcome of a ban and a more important one. The White House should move ahead.

Menthol, which masks the unpleasant effects of inhaled smoke with a cooling sensation, is the last permissible cigarette flavoring. (Congress outlawed fruit, chocolate and the like in 2009.) Like others, it makes cigarettes more palatable, especially to beginners, including teenagers. Menthol has been found to enhance the effects of nicotine in the brain. Menthol smokers generally crave a cigarette sooner after waking in the morning than other smokers. They try to quit more often, but they succeed less.

Undeniably, the effect of a ban on menthols would be felt differently by different groups. Four out of 5 Black adults who smoke use menthol brands — Newport, Kool, Salem and others. Only about 1 in 3 White smokers do. Why? Tobacco companies deny responsibility, but for decades menthol brands were promoted especially to Black Americans — via magazine ads, billboards, concert sponsorships and free samples. Cigarette-makers have even charged lower prices for menthol brands in Black neighborhoods. So it takes some audacity for the tobacco industry and its spokespeople to say menthol bans unfairly target Black smokers. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, a past recipient of support from R.J. Reynolds, maker of Newport menthol cigarettes, has opposed a menthol ban based on its alleged disparate impact on Black communities.