We speak this morning as Chair and Vice-Chair of the Citizens' Commission to Protect the Truth1, a commission composed of all living former United States Secretaries of Health, Education, and Welfare, U.S. Secretaries of Health and Human Services, U.S. Surgeons General, and Directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from every administration, Republican and Democrat, since that of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Commission was formed to promote the health of children and teens particularly, and all Americans, by discouraging smoking. Never in our history has such a group of top former health officials united with a common goal.
We are announcing that we have sent letters to the chief executives of the major manufacturers of menthol cigarettes, Lorillard, R.J. Reynolds and Phillip Morris, asking them to immediately stop marketing and selling such cigarettes because of the overwhelming evidence that they encourage children and teens to smoke by disguising the harsh taste of tobacco and because the aggressive marketing by these companies to African-Americans has savaged their health and well-being.
This morning we also call upon the Food and Drug Administration to ban menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes as its Congressionally established Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee recommended three years ago. A few weeks ago President Obama praised CVS Drug Store chain for its decision not to sell cigarettes and tobacco products as an action that promotes the public health. Weeks before that, the President stated that he intended to use his telephone and his pen to help the most vulnerable in our society and promote the public interest. And the President has repeatedly expressed his determination to reduce health care costs.
Well, there is no more powerful action the President can take than to use his phone and pen to convince the executives of companies that produce and sell menthol cigarettes to end their promotion and sale of such products and to support the recommendation of the FDA’s Scientific Advisory Committee to ban menthol as a characterizing flavor in cigarettes.
The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009, banned all characterizing flavors in cigarettes except menthol. But in the Tobacco Control Act Congress recognized the impact of the use of menthol in cigarettes on the health of children, African-Americans and other minorities, and directed the FDA to immediately have the Scientific Advisory Committee that the law established look at this matter. Three years ago that distinguished Committee found that removal of menthol cigarettes from the market would benefit the public health. Since then, the White House Office of Management and Budget has buried that recommendation in a bureaucratic quagmire of reports and referrals while thousands of children have been introduced to smoking through use of menthol cigarettes, and the African-American community has continued to be savaged by menthol cigarette smoking related deaths and diseases. And yet, despite the urgency expressed by Congress in the Tobacco Control Act and the continuing exploitation of children and blacks by menthol cigarette producing and marketing corporations, the Federal Government has failed to act.
In these five years of studying and commenting, commenting and studying since the Tobacco Control Act was signed, more than two million kids ages 12- to 17-years-old have started smoking and scores of thousands of African-Americans who smoke menthol cigarettes have died or been crippled by cancers and heart and respiratory diseases.
Brazil banned menthol in 2012, and based on the findings and recommendations of the World Health Organization the European Parliament approved a menthol ban last year. The City of Chicago has banned the sale of menthol cigarettes in school zones and other cities are poised to take actions.
Numerous scientific studies, before and after the Scientific Advisory Committee report, demonstrate that removing menthol from cigarettes is one of the most powerful measures the FDA can take to improve Americans’ health. This new report, Time to Ban Menthol, written by CASAColumbia, CASAColumbia at Columbia University, for the Citizens’ Commission to Protect the Truth and funded with a grant from Legacy®, confirms these findings.
Adverse health effects from smoking cigarettes account for nearly 1 out of every 5 deaths each year in the United States and billions of dollars in health care costs. The sole purpose of menthol flavoring in tobacco products is to make them more attractive. Menthol facilitates the initiation and perpetuation of smoking cigarettes and using tobacco products. Menthol is the tobacco industry's spoonful of sugar needed to help make its deadly medicine go down.
Youth and Menthol
More than 90 percent of adults addicted to cigarettes were hooked before 21, the overwhelming proportion as children and teens. Menthol brands like Newport, Salem, Kool and Marlboro Menthol are especially appealing to new young smokers. While 37 percent of smokers smoke menthol cigarettes, fully half (50 percent) of the youngest smokers, those ages 12 to 17, smoke menthol cigarettes. And while cigarette smoking in general has been declining, the rate of menthol cigarette use has increased, particularly among the youngest smokers. Rates of menthol cigarette use among adolescent smokers ages 12 to 17 increased from 36 percent in 2002 to 50 percent in 2010. Among young smokers ages 18 to 25, rates of menthol cigarette use increased from 30 percent in 2002 to 46 percent in 2010.
African-Americans and Menthol
Big tobacco's targeting of the black community with menthol cigarettes has had a devastating impact on African-Americans.
- More than 82 percent of African-Americans, some 5.4 million, who smoke, smoke menthol cigarettes
- Among smokers, nearly three times as many blacks as whites smoke menthol cigarettes
- Blacks who smoke menthol cigarettes are likelier than those who smoke non-menthol cigarettes to get hooked on nicotine
- Blacks who smoke menthol cigarettes are less likely to quit than those who smoke non-menthol cigarettes
Most disturbing is the stunning proportionate increase in menthol cigarette smoking among African-Americans: from 69 percent of black smokers in 2002 to more than 82 percent of black smokers in 2010. This, remember, comes at a time of declining smoking rates among the general population.
Menthol mayhem has long exacted a fearful toll on black Americans. As long ago as 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that almost 50,000 blacks die each year from smoking related diseases and thousands more are crippled by smoking-related ailments, and that black smokers are 50 percent likelier than white smokers to get lung cancer. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, calls cigarette smoking the true gateway to other drug use, which we believe puts African-American smokers, particularly menthol smokers, at greater risk of abusing other drugs and alcohol.
It has been 50 years since the first Surgeon General’s report showing the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. It has been more than 35 years since then Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano, Jr. started the national campaign against smoking. And it has been more than 20 years since Louis W. Sullivan, then Secretary of Health and Human Services, forced RJ Reynolds to abandon their new menthol brand, Uptown, aimed like a stake at the hearts of African-American smokers in Philadelphia.
The conclusions of the FDA Scientific Advisory Committee mirror the international consensus on the need to prohibit the use of menthol in cigarettes. The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which has been adopted by 177 countries representing 90 percent of the world’s population, calls on parties to “regulate, by prohibiting or restricting, ingredients [including menthol] that may be used to increase palatability in tobacco products."
How many more children in America will menthol cigarettes hook and how many more African-Americans must die or be crippled by cancers and cardiovascular diseases before the chief executive officers of Lorillard, Reynolds and Philip Morris remove their menthol flavored cigarettes from the market and before the Obama Administration allows the Food and Drug Administration to use the authority Congress gave it to ban menthol flavoring in cigarettes? That is the question every American should be asking their government leaders, federal, state and local, and the corporate executives who profit from exploitation of our young and our African-Americans.
Joseph A. Califano, Jr.
Chairman of the Citizens’ Commission to Protect the Truth
Louis W. Sullivan, MD
Vice Chairman of the Citizens’ Commission to Protect the Truth
1Joseph A. Califano, Jr. was Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare during the Carter Administration and Dr. Louis W. Sullivan was Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Administration of George H.W. Bush.