Now the Food and Drug Administration is considering a ban on menthol cigarettes, fueling a debate about how such a move would impact African Americans. The FDA’s Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee has been reviewing the health effects of menthol cigarettes for the past year and is due to submit its final report and recommendations to the agency any day. The FDA usually, but not always, goes along with its advisory panels. However, Lorillard, maker of Newports, and R.J. Reynolds, maker of Kools, filed a lawsuit Feb. 25 to block the committee’s recommendations. The suit alleges that the committee can’t provide fair advice because three members have conflicts of interest.
Newports are the lifeblood of Lorillard, the oldest U.S. tobacco company, which has framed the debate as a civil rights issue. One Lorillard ad, with a photo of an African-American woman, bears the headline “Freedom of Choice for Grown-ups” and states “informed grown-ups who decide to smoke should have the freedom to choose menthol cigarettes.”
In op-ed pieces published on a number of websites over the past few months, Jessie Lee, executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and Malik Aziz, national chair of the National Black Police Association, argue that a menthol cigarette ban would lead to an illegal market.
Meanwhile, John Payton, president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, has been vocal in his support of a ban. Lorillard’s argument that smokers should have the right to choose menthol “is so hypocritical it’s unbelievable,” Payton says. “Addiction is the absolute opposite of choice.”